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Sick Baby Rescued at Sea: Who Pays for the Mission?

Image: U.S. Navy

Sailors from Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Vandegrift assist in the rescue of a family with a sick infant via the ship's small boat as part of a joint U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard rescue effort.U.S. Navy via Reuters

The rescue at sea was one of the most complex in recent memory: Four members of the National Guard, backed by a Navy warship and 177 sailors, parachuted into the Pacific Ocean to pluck out a couple and their two daughters, one of them a seriously ill 1-year-old.

Even one of the couple’s relatives questioned the wisdom of the trip — an attempt to go around the world in a 36-foot sailboat — and the couple themselves are on the defensive.

But it seems unlikely that the pair, Eric and Charlotte Kaufman of San Diego, will be asked to pay for the rescue. By international convention, rescue on the seas is not charged for, said Dean Ross, deputy emergency chief for the National Park Service.

“We’re out there to save lives. You can’t put a price on that,” said 2nd Lt. Roderick Bersamina of the California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing, which sent the four rescuers by parachute.

The Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard, all involved in the mission to rescue the family and save the 1-year-old, Lyra, declined to talk about the cost of the operation. They said their focus was on bringing the family home safely.

But besides goodwill and the basic purpose of the mission, there’s a reason that people rescued in high-risk circumstances — stranded mountain climbers, backcountry skiers — generally are not asked to cover the cost.

Even a few minutes’ hesitation by those in distress, perhaps holding off on a call for help because they’re worried about getting a bill for tens of thousands of dollars, can mean the difference between life and death.

“We don’t want people to second-guess themselves,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Loumania Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard division that coordinated the Pacific rescue. “The Coast Guard doesn’t charge. It’s what we’re here for.”

Image: Sailors assist in the rescue of a family with a sick infant via the ship's small boat as part of a joint U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard rescue effort
Sailors from Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Vandegrift assist in the rescue of a family with a sick infant via the ship's small boat as part of a joint U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard rescue effort in the Pacific Ocean.U.S. Navy via Reuters

The family was aboard its sailboat, hundreds of miles off the coast of Mexico, when they called for help because the 1-year-old had become violently ill. The baby has stabilized, and the family, aboard the USS Vandegrift, is expected to arrive in San Diego midweek.

In a statement, Eric and Charlotte Kaufman said they were proud of their decision to attempt a sail around the world, and that the sea “always has the potential to overcome those who live on or near it.”

“We understand there are those who question our decision to sail with our family, but please know that this is how our family has lived for seven years,” they said.

Six days into the trip, on March 25, Charlotte wrote on her blog that the 1-year-old girl was the most challenging part of the trip.

“Trust me, we have no one else to blame for bringing a 13-month-old to sea than ourselves,” the mother wrote. “I keep telling myself that Bora Bora will be worth it, worth what I’m now calling ‘extreme parenting.’”

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Charlotte’s brother, James Moriset, told NBC San Diego that he thought the whole trip was nuts.

“I don’t understand what they were thinking to begin with,” he said. “I’m sorry, I don’t even like to take my kids in a car ride that would be too dangerous, and it’s, like, taking them out into the big ocean? It’s like — I don’t know.”

Image: Still image of a member of the California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing jumping off a plane during a rescue mission
A member of the California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing jumps off a military transport plane and into the ocean during the rescue mission.California Air National Guard

A mountain rescue in Aspen can range from a couple hundred dollars — the cost of a single meal for a rescue team — to $10,000 or more for complex rescues that require several days and expensive equipment.

The county sheriff’s department sends out a volunteer search team to handle the rescues, but it doesn’t bill the rescued, said Alex Burchetta, the department’s chief of operations.

He said mountain climbers or skiers requiring medical evacuation can be billed through their insurance companies for the cost of care.

Not every search and rescue operation is so forgiving.

New Hampshire changed its law six years ago to allow the state to bill the rescued if they were acting “negligent,” a lower bar than the previous version of the law, which required “reckless” behavior.

The state has collected about $69,000 since the law was changed, said Kevin Jordan, assistant chief of law enforcement for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. That includes $2,500 from a hiker last November who tried to climb 4,000 feet without winter gear.

The National Park Service spends $5 million to $5.5 million a year on search and rescue — everything from finding lost hikers, by far the most common operation, to injured cliff divers and capsized windsurfers.

That’s for more than 4,000 rescues a year, about two-fifths of which involve expensive aircraft.

In some cases, as when the rescued were somewhere they weren’t supposed to be, the park service will write a citation, and a judge can order reimbursement. Otherwise, the park service never sends a bill, Ross said.

“We’d rather you be safe and come home,” he said. “We may give you the stern-father look, but we’d rather have you home.”

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