The three boats clung to a makeshift raft of ice boxes and fended off shark attacks and jellyfish stings in the waters off Empire, Louisiana, until they were rescued 28 hours later thanks to a miraculous text message.
The three old friends set out on October 8 to fish for red snapper as they had done many times before. But the rough seas soon began to upset their fishing boat, stealing water from inside the boat.
“The moment we saw the back of the boat start to take on water, that’s when I knew,” Phong Le said on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday. “It was like the perfect storm for the perfect accident.”
The front of the ship was attached to an oil platform, but the waves made it worse, causing it to fall overboard. The men had about two minutes to react before the 24-foot center console boat sank around 10 a.m., according to an interview with “Good Morning America.”
The men quickly created a makeshift raft, tying two iceboxes together with Le’s bandana.
“Every time I go fishing I wear a bandana because I lose my hat every time,” said Le.
They tried to push towards the oil rig to call for help.
“Every oil rig has some kind of foam or something there, so we thought we could go up there and make an emergency call,” Le said. But they never succeeded.
As the sky darkened, the three men clung to the coolers, the moon providing some comfort.
“It’s good that it was a full moon because we had light,” Luan Nguyen told NBC. “We could barely see anything, so we wandered around at night.”
Until an unwelcome visitor arrived. A shark pounced on Nguyen and the fight for survival began.
“The shark hit my life jacket and I tried to take it off. He wouldn’t go, so I poked him in the eye,” Nguyen told NBC. “I put my thumbs in his eyes and he took off. I have a few little scars, but you know.’
Other sea creatures also made their presence known, making things even more difficult for the floating men.
“Every 15 to 20 minutes, you were constantly being stung by jellyfish,” Le told NBC.
“In the middle of the night, I woke up with this huge jellyfish on my lap,” Le added, noting during the interview that the jellyfish was as big as she was.
The men remained silent for the most part, swaying in the water.
“It was very cold, so we were trying to stay warm, holding each other and trying to stay warm,” Le said.
Le was separated from the group the next morning. He told NBC he wanted to swim about five miles to a shrimp boat and call for help. But when he got a mile out, the shrimp left, he said.
Desperate to find out his location, Le pulled out his cell phone, protected by a waterproof case: it had less than 5% battery and was on airplane mode to save charge.
“I opened my phone and that’s when all the text messages came in,” Le said. “I didn’t have a signal the whole time, but in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, I had a signal.”
No time was wasted. He said he screened his location on a map and texted a friend. The phone died soon after.
The friend received the message and contacted the Coast Guard with the location of the boats.
The men didn’t know it, but before the miraculous text message got through, the Coast Guard was on its way, Lt. Katy Caraway of Air Station New Orleans told CNN on Thursday. He was the co-pilot of a Jayhawk helicopter that helped rescue the men.
Five minutes into the flight, Caraway said they received a radio transmission that contained new information they could use in the search. It took them 25 minutes to get to the location sent in the text message.
After searching the water for 15 to 20 minutes, a Coast Guard plane pilot, flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet, saw one of the men flailing out of the water, Caraway said.
“He was the first survivor that we got and he got separated from his group because he tried to swim to a shrimp boat to get help,” Caraway told CNN.
A rescue swimmer jumped from the helicopter and swam to see where Le was, Caraway said.
“He didn’t talk much at all,” she said. “He was completely exhausted.”
Caraway got into position, dropped the rescue basket, and hoisted Le into the helicopter.
At that time, the helicopter crew heard that the other two boats had been found nearly a mile away, Caraway said. They went to the response boat to help.
Coast Guard Seaman Andrew Stone was on a 45-foot response boat when the call came in about the other two men, he said.
“The sharks were chasing us when we got up,” Stone said.
Nguyen was bleeding into the water, his hands covered in bites from the black tip shark, about 4 feet long, Stone told CNN on Tuesday.
“His orange lifeline was ripped in half by the fish,” Stone said.
Stone brought Nguyen aboard first.
“I remember him picking me up, pulling me out of the water, ‘whoa, I got it,'” a teary-eyed Nguyen told “Today.”
Joshua McCanally and Cooper Butcher pulled the second man from the water, Stone said.
“These guys were going through pretty severe exposure. They were very dehydrated, starving, of course,” Stone said.
The boaters were also sunburned and suffering from hypothermia when they were rescued on Sunday, he said.
“The water temperature in the Gulf, where they were, was 78 degrees, which sounds warm, but anything below your body temperature will start to steal heat,” Stone said.
Coast Guard crews reunited the men from the water with Le, who was already in the helicopter, he said.
Coast Guard members train for these types of events, but this rescue is anything but ordinary, Caraway said.
“Those kinds of people who have been in the water for a long time, who have been displaced from their vessel without communication, it’s almost impossible to find and recover,” Caraway said. “This one takes the cake for the rescue.”
“The odds of finding those people before the text message,” Caraway added, “were not slim at all. After the text message, it was still very slim.”
In all, about 30 members of the Coast Guard were involved in the search.
“To bring these people home, it’s something we train for every week and to do it in a textbook operational manner and actually save three lives … it was probably the best feeling you can have as a Coast Guard operator,” Caraway said.
Coast Guard Sector New Orleans is hosting a gathering for survivors and all response units that were part of the rescue.
“I see it as doing my job,” Caraway said. “I am happy that they will be able to spend the rest of their lives with their families.”