In the early morning hours of Jan. 17, 1977, more than 100 Sailors and Marines boarded a liberty boat provided by USS Trenton (LPD 14) to return to their ship, USS Guam (LPH 9) following weekend leave. The U.S. Navy ships were visiting the Mediterranean port of Barcelona, Spain, as part of a goodwill trip.
Sailing through the Barcelona harbor, tragedy struck just after 2 a.m. when the liberty boat collided with a Spanish merchant ship. As it capsized, it threw all 124 passengers and crewmembers from the boat into the dark waters below. The water temperature that morning was 50 degrees.
Some were able to swim to safety. Others remained trapped underneath the overturned vessel.
At the time, current Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic employee Michael Artegian was a Storekeeper (SK) Second Class and member of SEAL Team Two Detachment Alpha. He was off the coast of Spain with the team when they received news of the collision.
Artegian immediately volunteered to take part in the search and rescue. After a quick meeting with the platoon chief, he and some teammates boarded a boat loaded with diving equipment and headed for the site of the accident.
Once there, Artegian rapidly took action. He and a teammate dove underwater with their equipment and scoped out the area underneath the boat. “We were diving with only air, and the only light source was our flashlights,” he recalled.
During their initial dive, they discovered that many passengers were still alive. They also found an air pocket underneath one end of the boat that provided some refuge.
After resurfacing, Artegian and the team formed a rescue plan, knowing that it would be especially challenging due to the conditions that the Sailors and Marines had to endure while trapped. Not only were they submerged in extremely cold water, they were also subjected to toxic chemicals from diesel fuel spilling around them, according to Artegian.
“The approach was to grab the men, tell them who we were, and instruct them to hold their breath as they ascended to the surface,” said Artegian.
His teammate had the task of explaining the rescue process to each person, while Artegian had the task of taking hold of the person, swimming him underwater to clear the capsized boat, and then bringing him to the surface, where another team member would then take the rescued Sailor or Marine to a waiting ambulance.
Their plan worked; they saved several lives that winter morning. After rescuing the survivors, Artegian and his teammate took part in recovery efforts alongside other search and rescue divers.
Artegian was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his actions in Barcelona, the highest non-combat decoration.
Artegian joined the Navy in 1972. While he admits that swimming was not his strong suit, he thought being a frogman would be fun. When he applied, the recruiters told him that 85 percent of individuals who train to become a SEAL were not even accepted into the program.
Undeterred, Artegian took the test and went straight into Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal (BUDS) training following boot camp. Once at BUDS, he acquired a pair of fins and went from second slowest swimmer to second fastest swimmer in his class within two weeks’ time. He graduated in June 1972 and served as a SEAL for his entire Navy career before retiring in 1997.
After he retired, Artegian enrolled at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and majored in business before switching to information systems. As a student, then-Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWARSYSCEN) Chesapeake invited him to take a position as a part of a co-op program. Upon graduating from Old Dominion in 2000, he accepted a job offer at the command.
“I thought if I went to work for [SPAWAR] as a computer technician, working on logistics and support systems, that I could make a difference,” said Artegian.
He now directly supports the fleet as a customer support specialist for Naval Tactical Command Support Systems (NTCSS).
As a former SEAL, Artegian is cognizant of the need for immediate access to necessary supplies and materials.
“Lives are at stake," said Artegian. "There’s an entire support mechanism behind the warfighter that people might not even realize. You’re not going anywhere unless you have an organization like NIWC Atlantic getting that behind the scenes work done.”