MYRTLE BEACH — Two men overcame punishing seas Thursday night by tying themselves together and swimming about four miles to land, although their quest to stay alive was almost foiled by laser-happy onlookers on shore that hampered Coast Guard rescue efforts.
Guiseppe Chillico, 49, of Myrtle Beach, had decided to take friend Keith Crook, 50, visiting from Beckley, W.Va., out for a quick sail on a 19-foot catamaran despite unfavorable seas because Crook only had a short time left during his stay. Crook fell off the vessel while the pair were about four miles from shore and Chillico’s weight alone was not enough to keep the wind from toppling the boat when Chillico turned to retrieve his friend.
Alone and pounded by waves, there were only two options: swim or wait.
“We made an active decision to save ourselves,” Chillico said. “Otherwise it was sit out there all night, and we didn’t want to do that. The current was taking us to North Carolina.”
The two friends wound up tying themselves together for the journey when the waves kept separating them, trying to take advantage of the precious minutes they had left of daylight. Headway toward shore was hard to come by with the cross-current and waves, which often blocked the sight of shore.
“The lowest point was when the sun went down,” Chillico said. “Especially with the waves tumbling us and splitting us apart. It was just like being in a washing machine.”
The men’s spirits were buoyed when they began to see lights from a helicopter and boat searching for them, as well as some shining from the beach. At one point, Chillico – a co-owner of Bourbon Street Bar and Grill in Myrtle Beach – said a small craft passed close enough that the men thought they would be heard, but their shouts were to no avail.
The pair eventually made it to shore and were able to flag down a vehicle involved in the search. “It looked like everyone had stopped looking but we finally heard the breakers,” Chillico said.
“That was the longest daggone swim of my life, I have to tell you that.
“All’s well that ends well, but I feel very fortunate.”
At some point during that swim, Chillico said the light from the helicopter passed directly on them, but no one on the aircraft saw them in the water. Eventually, the light and the helicopter were completely gone.
“That was very depressing when we saw [the helicopter] leave,” he said, thinking it had gone to refuel.
The helicopter scouring the surf for the missing men had to abandon efforts when people on the beach began shining laser pointers at the aircraft, according to Petty Officer Christopher McDonald with the Coast Guard base in Charleston.
The search had to be suspended until the problem was taken care of because laser pointers can damage the eyes of the pilot, who is wearing night vision goggles, McDonald said.
Police attempted to find those with the laser pointers, but were unsuccessful.
Cmdr. Greg Fuller, with the U.S. Coast Guard air station in Savannah, Ga., said the pilot had indirect contact with the lasers.
The helicopter was forced to land and the rescuers had to get clearance over the phone before they could resume the search.
If there had been direct contact with the laser, the pilot would need to be cleared by a medical professional before resuming flight, Fuller said.
Once the helicopter was back in the air, the pilot was hit a second time by a green laser, Fuller said and was forced to land again.
Before it could be cleared to fly again, Chillico and Crook had made it to shore.
“It’s definitely gone to epidemic proportions,” Fuller said of laser strikes.
Information from Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, shows that the Coast Guard pilots reported being hit with a green laser at 10:43 p.m. Thursday.
The copter was at an altitude of 500 feet and three miles northeast of Myrtle Beach.
For the Grand Strand, the first seven months of 2012 has seen a significant increase in the number of laser incidents compared to 2011.
There have been 51 reports in the Myrtle Beach area through July 26, according to FAA statistics.
For all of 2011, there were 50 such laser strikes.
Three laser strikes were reported to the FAA by the U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday night alone, including the one that hindered the search for the two boaters.
Nationwide, the number of reported laser incidents rose from 2,836 in 2010, to 3,592 in 2011, according to the FAA.
“Shining lasers at any aircraft is dangerous, and the FAA will take enforcement action against persons who do so,” Bergen said.
“The maximum civil penalty is $11,000 per violation.”
Pat Dowling, North Myrtle Beach spokesman, said a law restricting green lasers in the municipality took effect on Nov. 21, 2011.
Since then, local police have written between nine and 10 warnings for people caught using them.
Those cited had been shining lasers on each other and onto Ocean Boulevard, Dowling added.
“It was a huge problem last summer, and the year before that, it started to show itself,” he said.
Dowling said these incidents are similar to problems caused by red lasers in the 1990s. Green lasers, he added, are much more intense and can shine up to three miles in some cases, depending on the size.
The majority of those who use the green lasers, Dowling said, are young people who don’t consider the consequences.
“They don’t think,” he said.
Contact BRAD DICKERSON at 626-0301 or TODD GARVIN at 626-0307.