The Healy returned to Seattle after helping a Russian tanker deliver much-needed fuel supplies to iced-in Nome, Alaska.

Share story

David Placido’s dad already had been gone 6,091 hours. But the toughest of all was hour 6,092.

That’s when Jon Placido finally emerged on the bow of the Coast Guard cutter Healy as it maneuvered itself Sunday alongside Pier 36 in downtown Seattle.

“Man, this is torture,” David’s mom, Elaine Placido, said of the hourlong docking process.

“I know, it’s like inch by inch,” said David, 12, waving to his dad. “He’s right there, so it’s like, ‘Come on down!’ “

About 30 minutes later, Jon Placido walked off the Healy and into the outstretched arms of Elaine, David, and 6-year-old Kathryn — all of them now able to hug for the first time in 254 days.

The Healy returned to Seattle on Sunday after an eight-month-plus deployment that included an unexpected detour through the frozen Bering Sea to help a Russian tanker deliver much-needed fuel to iced-in Nome, Alaska.

The icebreaker would have been back for Christmas if not for the sudden change of plans.

In what the Coast Guard calls its first-ever domestic ice-breaking operation, the Healy cut through 800 miles of frozen sea to escort the Russian-flagged Renda to and from Nome, where 1.3 million gallons of fuel was safely offloaded last month. Without the delivery, the western Alaska town of 3,500 likely would have run short of fuel by spring.

“The winter’s been pretty harsh in Alaska, and they were burning fuels much more quickly than expected,” said Capt. Beverly Havlik, the Healy’s commanding officer, noting that flying the fuel in would have been both riskier and costlier.

“It was very much a worthwhile mission to help the community,” she added. “They were quite grateful.”

The Healy is the Coast Guard’s only operational Polar icebreaker, but two others also are based in Seattle.

The Polar Sea was refurbished in 2006, only to be crippled by engine failure in 2010.

The rehabbed Polar Star is to return to service in 2013, with hopes of putting in an additional seven to 10 years.

The Healy’s history-making mission comes amid a legislative tussle over how large the nation’s icebreaker fleet should be.

The Coast Guard has said it wants to mothball the Polar Sea and scavenge its parts for the Polar Star cutter.

In Congress, House Republicans have pushed to permanently mothball the Polar Sea this year, and to decommission the Polar Star in three years.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has sought to bar the service from decommissioning the Polar Sea.

Before being diverted to Nome, Healy spent seven months in the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean for four scientific operations.

On Friday, as the Healy returned to Seattle, it diverted 90 miles to help a Singapore-flagged freighter that had lost a partial load of timber and became unstable in 70 mph winds and 30-foot seas.

The Healy, whose primary mission is scientific support, carried a crew of 94, including Jon Placido, of Rainier, Ore.

Although he spent Thanksgiving and Christmas away from his family, he made it home in time for another important event — David’s 13th birthday this Friday.

As the Healy moved within a hundred yards of port Sunday, David held up a red, white and blue banner bearing his dad’s name and the message: “We’ve missed you!”

“They’re almost here!” he enthused.

A large smile breaking out across her face, his mom replied, “Happy birthday, David.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com