WILLEMSTAD, Curacao ( June 27, 2012) -While deployed to the U.S. Forward Operating Location (FOL), an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) crew was in the right place at the right time to save the lives of 15 passengers whose boat sank last month off the coast of Klein Curacao.
The Airmen were on a catamaran sail boat enjoying snorkeling and sun on their off time when they received information that a local vessel sank one mile east of the island leaving 15 people to survive treading water. The Airmen and the local catamaran crew immediately stepped up to help.
“Captain John started the engines and we were off like a flash to look for those stranded in the water,” said the Senior Surveillance Technician. “Some of us started to prep our diving gear in case we needed to go pull injured folks out of the water… we really had no idea what to expect.”
After about three minutes traveling east, an AWACS Pilot and former search and rescue pilot, caught sight of the stranded passengers and motioned for the catamaran crew to turn in the direction of their location.
According to the AWACS pilot, the crew of the catamaran „Jonolisa Jo‟ positioned the boat close enough to the survivors so the Airmen could get them out of the water quickly and safely.
“It was a team effort. We could not have saved them without the crew from the Jonolisa Jo,” the AWACS pilot said. “They did an excellent job.”
Several Airmen personally pulled the passengers out of the ocean and quickly got them towels, water and food. The tourists turned survivors said they were grateful for the rescue.
“It was a very surreal experience. One moment we were enjoying the sun and the next we were searching for a shipwrecked boat,” said the Director of Operations, who was on the deck helping pull in the passengers. “We found them fast and rushed in quickly to help.”
The stranded German tourists were vacationing on the boat „El Rapidito‟ when the engine failed. While the crew tried to start the engine back up, the boat became swamped from the rough seas and sank in under two minutes, according to the passengers.
The Senior Airman, who spoke German, talked with some of the tourists after they were pulled from the ocean. “They were shocked and they didn‟t think anyone was coming to save them. They were getting tired treading water in the rough ocean waters and were worried some of them would start going under,” the Senior Airman said. “Once they heard us coming they were so relieved and happy.”
The Airmen got the information on the sunken boat from one of the El Rapidito crewmembers who swam nearly a mile to seek help according to the Senior Airman. “The El Rapidito passengers were pretty shook up… they had been floating in the ocean for three and a half hours,” he said. “I‟m just glad we got there in time and where able to help.”
All 15 passengers and crew were returned safely to shore with no injuries. The Dutch Caribbean Coastguard was notified and is investigating the incident.
“This is just another example of the wingman concept and the dedication of our Airmen,” said the Commander, who was also with the off-duty AWACS crew. “Their quick, decisive action ensured the passengers made it home alive. That‟s just what they do; they take care of each other and look out for others. I‟m very proud of their efforts.”
The 964th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron crew flies the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). They are currently deployed to the U.S. FOL in Curacao in support of Counter Drug operations for Joint Interagency Task Force South.