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May 15, 2008 11:55 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Daughters carry on legacy of father lost in 'Perfect Storm'

May 15, 2008 11:55 AM

Technical Sergeant Arden “Rick” Smith kissed his daughters goodbye and disappeared into the October night.

The year was 1991, and a lone sailor some 270 miles off the coast of Long Island was in distress. When the call went out for a rescue, Tech. Sgt. Smith—a pararescueman with the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing at Gabreski Air Base in Westhampton—answered.

It was the last time the girls would see their father alive.

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles away from the safety of their Shirley home, three violent weather systems had collided to form what meteorologists would dub “The Storm of the Century.” The events of that night would later be chronicled in the best-selling book and subsequent blockbuster film “The Perfect Storm.” But for the Smith family, the events of that fateful night were a personal tragedy.

On October 30, 1991, Tech. Sgt. Smith died at sea during the rescue attempt, one of 12 deaths directly attributed to the Halloween nor’easter. Nearly 17 years later, two of his daughters, Erica, now 23, and Kristen, 22, honor their father’s memory with service of their own—in the same 106th Rescue Wing, helping to save lives just as their father did.

And, Carolyn, only 3 weeks old when her father perished, is now 16 and on the verge of joining as well, according to her older sisters. “She’s next up,” Kristen said.

For Erica, the dream to serve was always there. “I grew up being a part of the 106th, and I wanted to remain a part of it,” she said. “The 106th is a great organization. They took care of us when my father died. Family is the heart of every mission.”

“He died doing what he loved,” Kristen said. “His memory seeps into everything we do.” Erica added, “We’re carrying on his mission. He lives on through us.”

Ironically, Tech. Sgt. Smith was supposed to be on leave that October day: His wife, Marianne, had just given birth to their third daughter, Carolyn. But, in keeping with the Rescue Wing’s motto, “These things we do, that others may live,” the 32-year-old Smith grabbed his gear and joined up with a Jolly 10—a five-man Air Force combat search-and-rescue team launching from Gabreski Airport, seeking to help a Japanese sailor on a 35-foot yacht about three hours offshore, in the middle of the storm.

The five-man crew in the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter abandoned the mission because 70-foot seas and 80-mph gusts made an air rescue attempt too dangerous, both for the crew and for the stranded sailor, who had a better chance riding out the storm in the boat. But on its return, the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter hit the storm’s fury and went down into the Atlantic. Only four crewmen survived.

Erica, then 7 years old, remembers her father kissing her good night. And she remembers her mother answering the phone the next morning as news of the downed helicopter came over the line.

Her younger sister Kristen, 5 years old at the time, remembers the house filling up with family, friends, and 106th Rescue Wing personnel. Erica recalls her mother, a former crew chief on F-16 fighters, telling them that their father would be found—Tech. Sgt. Smith had a reputation as the toughest pararescueman around.

Erica said her mother tried to maintain a sense of normalcy and calm. It was Halloween, and the mother took the girls trick-or-treating.

For two and half weeks, rescue teams scoured the expanse of endless ocean looking for their fellow airman. He was never found.

Erica and Kristen also remember that time as one of incredible support and love from the 106th. That feeling of solidarity shared with the families from the base stayed with the sisters and pushed them along the same path their father had followed.

In October 2001, less than a month after 9/11, then-17-year-old Erica was stirred by the patriotism in the air that coincided with the 10th anniversary of her father’s death.

Today, the 23-year-old is a non-commissioned officer stationed with the 106th. She is in charge of Aviation Resource Management for those very same search-and-rescue teams on which her father served. It is her job to maintain the flight records of pararescue jumpers, like her father was, and to coordinate with squadron training to ensure mission readiness.

Kristen, now 22, joined up in December 2006, and serves a crew chief on the Wing’s workhorse, the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, and readies the helicopters for search-and-rescue missions.

Kristen, who once dreamed of being a paleontologist, said she held off on joining the military after reading her older sister’s letters from basic training. But as she grew older the camaraderie and sense of family she had experienced from the 106th after her father’s death helped make up her mind. “The bond you establish is like nothing else,” said Kristen, who is enrolled at Stony Brook University and is working on a degree in Earth Science.

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