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Mon Valley native invited to address

| Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003

Phillip J. Ornot Jr., a former paramedic from the Mon Valley who now is a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, routinely puts his life in danger to save others.

"He loves it. He lives for this kind of stuff," said Ornot's father, Phillip Sr., a longtime United Steelworkers of America organizer who lives in Westmoreland County.

The younger Ornot was invited to attend President Bush's State of the Union Address on Tuesday after saving 17 members of the Ukrainian cargo ship White Seal that was in peril in the Atlantic Ocean.

"The weather was terrible," said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Joshua Fulcher, who was second-in-command of Friday's rescue operation some 170 miles east of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The winds were gusting well over 60 miles per hour, waves were between 35 and 40 feet high, sometimes covering the front part of the boat that was dead in the water and noticeably leaning to one side. Water was filling the craft.

"Anytime they put you down on a ship in that heavy of a sea, you're risking your neck," Fulcher said. "The ship can roll over pretty quickly."

Ornot, who is known in the Coast Guard as an aviation survival technician, and Fulcher work out of the Coast Guard Air Station at Elizabeth City, N.C., about 30 miles south of the Virginia border.

Fulcher said the Coast Guard received a distress signal about 9:30 a.m. and immediately dispatched a fixed-wing airplane to reconnoiter the situation.

Ornot, who could not be reached yesterday, was among the four-member helicopter crew — two pilots and a mechanic responsible for operating the lift — dispatched to the White Seal.

The younger Ornot was lowered by cable onto the unsteady ship and, one by one, loaded the 17 Ukrainians onto a basket to be lifted to safety.

"None of the crew members spoke English," the elder Ornot said. "They kept trying to carry their suitcases onto the basket with them. He was screaming at them that they couldn't and finally ripped one away and threw it into the ocean."

Fulcher said it took about a half-hour to complete the rescue.

"I asked him what was going through his mind," the elder Ornot said. "He said, 'Dad, that's what I'm trained to do. That's my job.' He said he was concentrating on what he was taught."

Ornot grew up in Rostraver Township and is a 1991 graduate of Belle Vernon Area High School. He trained and worked as a Mon Valley EMS paramedic before joining the Coast Guard five years ago. He and his wife, Erin, live in Virginia Beach. His mother, Theresa McNeil, and three siblings live in the Belle Vernon area.

Another guest at Bush's State of the Union Address was Sister Maria Fest, who directs a family support services center for the Sisters of Divine Providence, based in McCandless. She and three others who volunteer in or run organizations that help the needy were invited to sit with first lady Laura Bush.

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