December 3, 2006: “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” Air Force Special Agent Jim Collins thought as he swam through the cold, cholera-filled water of Lake Qadisiya in Iraq. Collins had been swimming in the 50-degree water for some 30 minutes, personally rescuing two U.S. Marines, a helicopter crewman and a KBR civilian contractor. With the help of others, 10 of the 16 passengers were saved.
Special Agent Collins witnessed the Marine CH-46 Sea Knight crash into the lake: During take-off from the top of a dam, the front of the helicopter cleared a 4-foot wall but lost power, striking the wall of the dam. The helicopter pitched forward and dove 40 feet into the lake below.
“The belly of the CH-46 scraped the top of the wall and then the rear two tires hit the wall, causing the CH-46 to go nose-first over the wall. Murphy [Tech. Sgt. Noel Murphy], Z [Senior Airman Eduardo Zamora] and I ran over to the wall,” said Collins. “With all that gear, I knew they were in trouble and needed immediate help.”
Collins, a strong swimmer and scuba instructor, well knew the effects of cold water. “It’s about 40 meters from the wall to the water where I took off my shoulder holster, boots and flight suit. Then I dove into the water and swam out about 40 to 50 meters where I found two people struggling in the water. The temperature of the water was a shock, it was enough to take your breath away.”
The first two survivors were Marines who had bailed out of the downed chopper. Witnesses formed a human chain to pull the survivors of the crash out of the lake. Towing these two Marines proved difficult as their heavy, water-logged uniforms were dead weight, and in a panic they were fighting Collins’ efforts. He eventually made it and passed them off, before returning to the crash.
He soon found the civilian contractor and pulled him to safety, for his third rescue. Again he swam back to the crash site.
His last effort found a helicopter crewmember in a frantic state. “I was pushed under more than once,” stated Collins. I was in the water for about 25 to 30 minutes and after being in the water that long, I could feel the cold water taking a toll on my body and muscle control.” Making it to shore a final time, he spit mouthfuls of the cholera-infested water. Even though suffering from exhaustion and hypothermia, he remained on shore with other rescuers, as six more were saved.
For his heroism and voluntary risk of life at Haditha Dam, Special Agent Collins became one of just three recipients of the Air Force Airman’s Medal since its inception. He was also awarded the Bronze Star and the Combat Action ribbon.