Three boaters clung to a makeshift freezer raft in the waters off Empire, Louisiana, fending off shark attacks and jellyfish stings until they were rescued 28 hours later, all thanks to a magical text message.
The three old friends set out on October 8 to fish for red snapper as before. But rough seas soon began to disrupt their fishing boats, slapping the water inside.
“I knew it the moment we saw the stern of the boat started to get in,” Phong Le said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today.” “It’s like a perfect storm of perfect accidents.”
The front of the boat was strapped to an oil rig, but the waves were getting bigger and slammed into the boat. The men had about two minutes to react before their 24-foot center console boat sank at around 10 a.m., according to an interview with Good Morning America.
The men quickly built a makeshift raft, tying the two freezers together with Le’s hood.
“Every time I go fishing, I wear a hood because I lose a hat every time,” Le said.
They tried to push themselves to oil rigs for help.
“Every oil rig has some sort of bubble, or something in there, so we thought we could get there and we could put out a distress signal,” Le said. But they never succeeded.
It was getting dark, the three clinging to the cooler, and the moon offered some comfort.
“Fortunately there is a full moon because we have light,” Luan Nguyen told NBC. “We could barely see anything, so we just drifted at night.”
until an uninvited guest came. A shark hits Nguyen and a fight for survival ensues.
“The shark hit the life jacket and I tried to push him away. He wouldn’t go away, so I poked him in the eye,” Nguyen told NBC. “I put my thumb in his eye and he’s gone. I have a few scars, but you know.”
Other sea creatures have also made their presence known, making it more difficult for those afloat.
“Every 15 to 20 minutes, you keep getting stung by jellyfish,” Le told NBC.
“In the middle of the night, I woke up and found this giant jellyfish on my lap,” Le added, gesturing that the jellyfish was as wide as he was in the interview.
Throughout the process, the men remained silent for most of the time, floating in the water.
“It was cold, so we just wanted to stay warm, we just wanted to hug each other and stay warm,” Le said.
The next morning, Le left the group. He told NBC he wanted to swim about five miles to a shrimp boat and ask for help. But when he walked about a mile, the shrimper left, he said.
Le tried to figure out his location and pulled out his phone, which was protected by a waterproof case—it had less than 5 percent battery power and was in airplane mode to save power.
“I turned on my phone and all of a sudden, all the text messages came in,” Le said. “I’ve been without a signal, but in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, I have a signal.”
Le wasted no time. He said he captured his location on a map and sent it to a friend. The phone died shortly after.
The friend got the message and contacted the Coast Guard with the crew’s location.
The men don’t know it, but the Coast Guard is on its way before the magic text message gets through, Lieutenant. Katie Callaway of Air Station New Orleans told CNN on Thursday. She was the co-pilot of the Jayhawk helicopter that helped rescue the men.
Five minutes into the flight, Callaway said they received radio signals indicating they could use the new information in their search. It took them 25 minutes to reach the location sent in the text message.
After 15 to 20 minutes of searching the waters, a pilot of the Coast Guard plane was cruising at 1,000 feet and spotted one of the men waving in the water, Callaway said.
“Le, who was the first survivor we picked up, was actually separated from the others because he had tried to swim to the shrimp boat for help,” Callaway told CNN.
Callaway said a rescue swimmer jumped from the helicopter and swam over to check on Leah.
“He doesn’t talk much at all,” she said. “He’s exhausted.”
With Caraway in place, the rescue basket is lowered and Le is hoisted to the helicopter.
Around that time, the helicopter crew heard that two other crew members had been spotted nearly a mile away, Callaway said. They flew to the response boat to help.
He said Coast Guard sailor Andrew Stone was on a 45ft response boat when the call came in about two other men.
“They were being harassed by sharks when we stopped,” Stone said.
Stone told CNN on Tuesday that Nguyen was bleeding and his hands were bitten by a blacktip shark, about 4 feet long.
“His orange lifebuoy was ripped in half by the fish,” Stone said.
Stone pulled Nguyen aboard first.
“I just remember him picking me up, pulling me out of the water and being like ‘wow, I made it,'” Nguyen told TODAY with tears in his eyes.
Sergeants Joshua McCanally and Cooper Butcher pulled the second man out of the water, Stone said.
“These people had pretty severe exposure. Of course, they were very dehydrated, hungry,” Stone said.
The crew also suffered sunburn and hypothermia when they were rescued on Sunday, he said.
“The water temperature in the bay they’re in is 78 degrees, which sounds warm, but anything below your body temperature will start to absorb heat,” Stone said.
He said Coast Guard crews reunited those pulled from the water with Le, who was already in the helicopter.
Callaway said members of the Coast Guard train for these kinds of incidents, but this rescue was anything but ordinary.
“People who are in the water for so long, being displaced from the boat without any form of communication, it’s nearly impossible to find them and get them back,” Callaway said. “It takes cake to rescue.”
“The possibility of finding these people before the text message,” Callaway added, “is almost non-existent. After the text message, it’s still smart.”
In total, approximately 30 Coast Guard members participated in the search.
“In order to bring these people home, it’s something that we train every week and do textbook operations on, actually save three survivors…it’s probably what you operate as a coast guard The best feeling a player can have,” Callaway said.
The New Orleans Coast Guard is planning a gathering for survivors and all response units involved in the rescue.
“I just see it as doing my job,” Callaway said. “I’m very happy that they are able to spend the rest of their lives with their families.”