As Memorial Day approached last May, members of the Bay Area-based Coast Guard ship Aspen were going about their regular duties on Yerba Buena Island. Suddenly came word they were being sent to the Gulf of Mexico to help with the massive BP oil spill. They packed the ship full of supplies, bid goodbye to family, and steamed out of the bay three days later.
They arrived in the Gulf amid one of the nation’s largest environmental disasters. “When you got into the oil, it was like, this is crazy,” said Coast Guard crewman Scott Walls. “We’re right at the spot of the oil. Just seeing how bad the devastation was – it was kind of humbling.”
The crew spent the next several months skimming oil from the Gulf, helping protect beaches in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. By the time they were done, the Aspen had skimmed 138,000 gallons of oil from the Gulf.
“Everyday, planes, helicopters would look for oil,” said the ship’s commander, Captain Roy Brubaker. “They’d tell us where it was and we’d go there and skim until there was nothing left.”
Brubaker said the crew had to wear special suits in temperatures often reaching 100 degrees. The heat was so punishing that the crew would switch shifts each hour.
The task was far different than the Aspen’s normal role, moving buoys in and out of busy shipping areas and waterways. But the ship was also designed and loaded with equipment to respond to oil spills. This was the first time in Coast Guard history a buoy tender had actually seen real world duty cleaning a spill. . “Definitely different and something that will live with me for the rest of my life,” said Coast Guard crewman John Fullwood
After five-and-a-half months in the Gulf, the Aspen was finally cleared to return to the Bay Area. But once again, fate nearly intervened. The crew was rerouted to help the Carnival Splendor cruise ship coasting aimlessly after losing power in an engine room fire. The call nearly delayed the Aspen’s long awaited date with home port on Yerba Buena Island. But just before arriving at the scene, the Coast Guard sent them on their way home.
On Friday, families and friends filled the piers of Yerba Buena Island to watch the Aspen coast into dock. Children held signs, wives huddled together and a group of military veterans aboard Harleys hoisted flags to welcome the crew home.
“It feels great to be home,” said Fullwood, after walking down a ramp into the waiting arms of his wife. “It’s been a long five-and-a-half months away from home and it’s a great homecoming.”
Captain Brubaker described the sight of Golden Gate Bridge appearing through the haze as the best sight he’d ever seen. Then he paused and shifted course. “Second best sight. The first best sight was seeing my wife and my son on the pier.”