Three sailors clung to a makeshift raft of iceboxes and repelled shark attacks and jellyfish stings in the waters near Empire, Louisiana until they were rescued 28 hours later, all thanks to a text message. miraculous.
The three longtime friends left on October 8 to fish for red snapper as they had done many times before. But soon the rough sea began to disturb their fishing boat, lapping the water inside the ship.
“The moment we saw the back of the boat starting to get water, I knew right away,” Phong Le told NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday. “It was like the perfect storm for the perfect accident.”
The front of the boat was tied to an oil rig, but the waves got worse, crashing aboard the boat. The men had about two minutes to react before their 24-foot center console boat sank around 10:00, according to an interview with “Good Morning America.”
The men quickly created a makeshift raft, tying two ice boxes together with Le’s bandana.
“Every time I go fishing, I wear a bandana because every time I lose a hat,” Le said.
They tried to go to the oil rig for help.
“Every oil rig has some kind of foam, or something like that, so we thought we could go up there and we could do a distress call,” Le said. But they never made it.
When the sky went dark, the three men clung to the refrigerators, the moon provided some comfort.
“Luckily there was a full moon because we had light,” Luan Nguyen told NBC. “We could barely see anything, so we drifted at night.”
Until an unwelcome visitor arrives. A shark struck Nguyen and a struggle for survival ensued.
“The shark hit the life jacket and I tried to push it away. He wasn’t going to leave, so I hit him in the eye, “Nguyen told NBC.” I put my thumbs in his eye and he was gone. I have a couple of little scars, but you know.
Other marine creatures have also made their presence known, making things even more difficult for floating humans.
“Every 15-20 minutes, you were constantly stung by jellyfish,” Le told NBC.
“In the middle of the night, I woke up with this big jellyfish alone on my lap,” Le added, signaling during the interview that the jellyfish was as wide as he was.
The men remained mostly silent during all of this, swinging in the water.
“It was very cold, so we were just trying to stay warm, just trying to hug and stay warm,” Le said.
They separated them from the group the next morning. She wanted to swim about five miles to a shrimp boat and ask for help, she told NBC. But when she was about a mile away, the shrimp was gone, she said.
Trying to figure out her location, he took out her cell phone, protected by a waterproof case: it had less than 5% battery and was in airplane mode to save power.
“I opened the phone and that’s when all the text messages suddenly came in,” Le said. “The whole time I had no signal, but in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, I had a signal.”
We wasted no time. She said she captured her location on a map and sent it to a friend. Her phone died shortly after.
The friend received the message and contacted the Coast Guard with the location of the boaters.
The men didn’t know this, but before the miraculous text message arrived, the Coast Guard was already on its way, Air Station New Orleans Lt. Katy Caraway told CNN on Thursday. She was the co-pilot of a Jayhawk helicopter that helped save the men.
Five minutes after their flight began, Caraway said she received the radio transmission that there was new information they could use in the search. It took 25 minutes to reach the location sent in the text message.
After 15-20 minutes of searching the waters, a Coast Guard plane pilot cruising at an altitude of 1,000 feet spotted one of the men waving from the water, Caraway said.
“Le, was the first survivor we collected and was actually the one who got separated from the rest of his group because he tried to swim to a shrimp boat for help,” Caraway told CNN.
A rescue swimmer jumped from the helicopter and swam to check on Le, Caraway said.
“He didn’t talk much,” he said. “He was completely exhausted.”
Caraway moved into position, dropped the rescue basket, and hoisted Le into the helicopter.
It was around this time that the helicopter crew learned that the other two boaters had been found nearly a mile apart, Caraway said. They flew to the response boat to help.
Coast Guard Sailor Andrew Stone was on a 45-foot response boat when the call about the other two men came, he said.
“They were harassed by sharks when we stopped,” Stone said.
Nguyen was bleeding in the water, his hands covered in the bites of black tip sharks, about 4 feet long, Stone told CNN on Tuesday.
“His orange life buoy was ripped in half by the fish,” Stone said.
Stone first pulled Nguyen into the boat.
“I just remember picking me up, pulling me out of the water, it was like ‘wow, I did it’,” Nguyen told “Today” with tears in his eyes.
NCOs Joshua Mcanally and Cooper Butcher pulled the second man out of the water, Stone said.
“These guys were suffering from quite severe exposure. They were very dehydrated, hungry, of course, “Stone said.
The boaters were also sunburned and suffering from hypothermia when they were rescued on Sunday, he said.
“The Gulf water temperature, where they were, (was) 78 degrees, which sounds hot, but anything below body temperature will start to steal heat,” Stone said.
Coast Guard crews reunited the men pulled out of the water with Le, who was already in the helicopter, he said.
Coast Guard members train for these kinds of events, but this rescue was anything but ordinary, Caraway said.
“People like this who have been in the water for a long time, who have been moved from their ship without any form of communication, are nearly impossible to find and retrieve,” Caraway said. “This takes the cake to the rescue.”
“The likelihood of finding these people before the text message,” Caraway added, “was little or no. After the text message, it was still very slim.”
In all, around 30 members of the Coast Guard were involved in the research.
“Bringing these people home, is something we train for every week and doing it operationally as a textbook and actually saving three survivors … was probably the best feeling you can get as a Coast Guard operator,” Caraway said.
The New Orleans Coast Guard sector is planning a rally for survivors and all response units that have been part of the relief efforts.
“I just look at it as doing my job,” Caraway said. “I’m just happy that they can spend the rest of their lives with their families.”