The Coast Guard helicopter crews who work out of Air Station Kodiak often fly through wind and whiteouts to rescue fishermen, freighter crews and recreational boaters from Alaska's...

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The Coast Guard helicopter crews who work out of Air Station Kodiak often fly through wind and whiteouts to rescue fishermen, freighter crews and recreational boaters from Alaska’s roiling waters. During the 12 months that ended in September, they responded to more than 160 search-and-rescue calls.

But one of the biggest and most treacherous rescues in recent years unfolded Wednesday afternoon amid a storm that kicked up 20-foot swells in the Bering Sea.

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Two Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters were dispatched off Unalaska Island to rescue 26 crew members of a 738-foot foreign freighter adrift without power. But only 20 members of the freighter crew would make it back to safety.

Six were presumed lost after a rescue helicopter plunged into the sea, the first crash of an Alaska Coast Guard helicopter since 1986.

The cause of the crash has not been determined, but one early, unconfirmed report indicated that a large wave may have hit the bow of the disabled freighter and then deflected up onto the helicopter, according to Lt. Shad Soldano, a Coast Guard pilot based out of Kodiak. This could have caused the helicopter’s engine to die, sending the aircraft into the Bering Sea.

“It [the wave] would have flamed out the engines,” said Soldano, who didn’t take part in Wednesday’s rescue. “As a pilot … then you know you’re going swimming. I’ve come close a couple of times.”

A quick response by a third Coast Guard helicopter saved the lives of the three Coast Guard crewmen aboard the downed helicopter, as well as one member of the ship’s crew. That helicopter deployed rescue swimmers, who helped the crew into baskets lowered from the rescue craft. But the swimmers were unable to locate the six other members of the freighter crew amid the turbulent water fouled with heavy bunker fuel from the leaking freighter.

By yesterday afternoon, the helicopter had washed up on the beach of an Unalaska bay, the wreckage stained brown by oil.

“Alaska is the most challenging place to fly in, especially in bad water and the extreme winds,” said Petty Officer Paul Roszkowski, an Air Station Kodiak spokesman. “The Coast Guard did everything possible to keep the vessel from running aground and save the crew. We like nothing better than to save lives.”

The initial distress call came late Tuesday evening as the cargo ship Selendang Ayu lost power while heading on the Bering Sea to deliver soybeans to China.

The Coast Guard responded by directing a cutter — the Alex Haley — to intercept the drifting vessel and try to assist, Roszkowski said. But the cutter was unable to take the freighter under tow, and a separate effort by a private tug failed when a tow line broke amid the stress of the storm, according to Roszkowski.

The crew’s rescue began at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, with the two Jayhawk helicopters taking turns hovering over the Selendang Ayu, lowering lines with rescue baskets to the deck. One by one, 18 crew members climbed into the baskets. They then were shuttled to a nearby cutter.

The rest of the crew hoped to stay with the vessel, but that became too risky as the freighter threatened to run aground, according to Roszkowski.

Later in the afternoon, the remaining crew asked to be evacuated. By then, the winds off Unalaska were reported to be 28 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph.

As the rescue resumed, a severe squall blew through the area, according to Lauren Adams, an Unalaska-based video producer who was flying over the scene Wednesday afternoon. That severely reduced visibility.

“This can be some of the most extreme flying in the United States,” said Soldano. “You’re out there trying to do a hoist off a boat, every now and then — it’s like someone takes a sheet and throws it over your eyes and you have no visibility, and on top of that you [can] have 20- to 30-foot waves, and the boat is going up and down.”

Despite the challenges, a Jayhawk was able to lift most of the remaining crew off the deck. During the rescue effort, the Coast Guard radioed the crew to ask if they had immersion suits in case they went into the water, according to Adams, who monitored radio communications. But the crew had only life jackets, Adams said.

The crash occurred after 6 p.m., according to Coast Guard officials.

The crew of the downed helicopter was expected to return to Kodiak yesterday afternoon. They are: Lt. Dave Neel of Stilwell, Okla.; Lt. Doug Watson of Cranford, N.J.; Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Lickfield of Allentown, Pa.; and Petty Officer 3rd Class Aaron Bean of Silverton, Colo., a rescue swimmer who remained on board the freighter when the helicopter went down.

The pilot of the downed helicopter was 36-year-old Neel, a former Army pilot who has been in the Coast Guard since 1998. After he was rescued from the water, he spoke briefly with his wife, Rose Neel. To break the tension, the couple was able to joke about how Neel “went swimming,” according to his wife.

Rose Neel, who lives on Kodiak Island and was interviewed there by phone, said yesterday she tries not to focus on the dangers of her husband’s job.

“You think, ‘What if?’ But I try not to think, ‘What if.’ ”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Warren Cornwall contributed to this report.