Men’s bold rescue at sea earns honors

The 75-foot Fort Moultrie was used by Charleston Pilots crew members to rescue four people on March 30.

The Coast Guard today will recognize the efforts of two Charleston Pilots crew members in what officials said was a courageous rescue of four people stranded after their boat capsized.

Boat captains John Miles and Frank Witunsky will be presented with the Coast Guard’s Meritorious Public Service Award. The award is the Coast Guard’s second highest for public service and is offered to those individuals who display unusual courage in their assistance, Lt. Tim McNamara said.

The Charleston Branch Pilots Association provides pilots to container, cargo, cruise and military ships that enter and leave the Port of Charleston to prevent shipping accidents.

It was late on March 30 when Miles and Witunsky heard a distress call.

The pair decided to divert their course in the direction of the call, which was about 12 miles off the Charleston Harbor, Miles said.

Luckily, it wasn’t quite dark yet, Miles said, making it easier for them to navigate the choppy waters in their 75-foot vessel.

The light from a nearby Coast Guard helicopter helped guide them to the capsized boat.

Coolers and cushions bobbed in the water, Miles said. Among them were four people clinging desperately to a 28-foot boat that had already begun to sink.

The waters were pretty chilly that day, Miles said. The four people were wearing long pants and jackets, but the 55-degree water had started to take its toll.

“They were excited to be rescued, but you could tell that they were lethargic in their movements and were having trouble gripping the ropes,” Charleston Branch Pilots Association’s Executive Director John Cameron said.

The Coast Guard asked Miles and Witunsky if they would prefer for their helicopters to conduct the rescue, but Miles said time was of the essence.

“We were closer than they were, and we needed to take action quick,” Miles said. “Besides, we were happy to do it.”

Miles yelled for the stranded people to swim toward a ladder one at a time. Witunsky fought splashing waves as he climbed down to a platform to better pull them out of the water.

They provided the rescued people with warm blankets before transferring them over to the Coast Guard to be carried to shore.

For Miles, the events of that day were par for the course. He said a day doesn’t go by on the job when he and other captains aren’t listening for those in distress.

But Cameron said Miles and Witunsky showed a tremendous amount of skill that day.

“Really, in my opinion, the job they did was quite exemplary,” Cameron said.

Officials will present Miles and Witunsky with a certificate for their efforts at 10:30 a.m. at the Charleston Branch Pilots’ Association, 6 Concord St. in Charleston.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at