Will to live and life: Anglers survive exhausting 28 hours

Published 4:39 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2022

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Two anglers whose boat sank on Saturday clung to an improvised float and fought off sharks in the Gulf of Mexico while the third swam to search for help. What Phong Le found was a cellphone signal that let him send a Google map of his location just before his battery died, he told ABC News on Tuesday.

They had been in the water since about 10 a.m. Saturday, and sharks showed up Sunday morning, Luan Nguyen said. One bit the front of his life vest.

“And I think that’s where I caught … these injuries on my hand,” he told the network, which identified the third boater as Son Nguyen.

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“I took my two thumbs and jabbed him in the eyes, and he took off,” he said.

Four blacktip sharks — about 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) long — were circling and harassing them even as they were pulled from the water, said Andrew Stone, a seaman in the Coast Guard boat crew that rescued the Nguyens.

“They were too tired to even be panicking,” he told The Associated Press in an interview alongside other Coast Guard members and officials.

All three boaters were back home Tuesday, the Coast Guard said.

Helicopter rescue swimmer Richard Hoefle said both boaters had deep cuts on their hands, and one was missing the tip of a middle finger.

In the hospital, he said, one man told him, “I was 100% certain my time was up” before he saw the aircraft that spotted them.

“These peoples’ will to survive and their lifejackets is what saved their lives,” said Lt. Katy Caraway, a helicopter pilot who rescued Le, who was suffering from hypothermia, and then flew all three to a New Orleans hospital.

She said that while the first man was being raised to the helicopter, the an airplane located the two who had to fight off sharks about a half-mile to a mile (0.8 to 1.6 kilometers) away. A Coast Guard boat based in Venice sped out to that spot.

The group’s 24-foot (7.3-meter) boat had sunk about 10 a.m. Saturday, leaving them with no radio in an area without cellphone service.

“We made a distress call on the VHF radio to the Coast Guard and let them know that we’d taken on water,” Le told ABC. “And not even seconds after that, the boat was nearly halfway in the water.”

They tied two ice chests together as a makeshift float. One happened to hold water and fruit, Luan Nguyen told the network.

One man’s wife reported them missing about 10 p.m. Saturday, said Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Keefe, rescue coordinator for Sector New Orleans. The woman didn’t know their launch point, he said, and it took about 3.5 hours to find the vehicle in Venice, near Louisiana’s southeastern tip, so crews would know the best areas to search when dawn broke.

Le said that he swam off for help on Sunday. After what he estimated was 5 miles, he happened on a signal for his cellphone and texted his Google map location to a friend.

“I see him trying to reply to me. And the phone cut off — I ran out of battery,” Le told the network.

A boater’s wife texted it to the Coast Guard, said Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Keefe, rescue coordinator for Sector New Orleans.

Coast Guard boats, planes and a helicopter had spent fruitless hours searching an area of the Gulf larger than Rhode Island.

Then the screenshot arrived. Using coastal contours, the command center was able to figure out where it was, said Keefe.

The Coast Guard said the men were found about 25 miles off Empire, which is about 15 miles upriver from Venice.

There was a lot of hugging in the helicopter, Hoefle said. The man he had helped into a lift basket “had no idea if his friends were alive or dead” until they arrived.

Once the two rescued by the boat were on the helicopter, the boat’s three-person crew could enjoy their joy. “We were celebrating — whooping and hollering,” said Stone.

“I’d say this was a rescue for the books for all of us,” Caraway said.