Two severely burned Chinese fishermen rescued by a group of Davis-Monthan airmen after their boat sank off the coast of Mexico could only say two words in English to the men who came to their aid: “Thank you.”
“They said that a lot,” said 1st Lt. Ben Schmidt, a combat rescue officer with the 48th Rescue Squadron, who was one of six Air Force personnel dropped into the Pacific Ocean and who used inflatable boats to make their way onto a Venezuelan vessel 1,100 nautical miles from Mexico to treat the injured men.
The group returned to their Tucson air base Tuesday after the three-day mission.
“The language barrier was probably one of the toughest challenges we faced,” Schmidt said. “We had to work through it with hand gestures and facial expressions to kind of figure out what they wanted, how much pain they were in, food and water. Things like that.”
About 5 p.m. Friday, the 563rd Rescue Group was called in to rescue the injured fishermen, who along with nine other sailors, were found in a raft by the Venezuelan fishing vessel after a fire forced them off their ship. Two of the fishermen died from injuries from the fire, and seven others were in good condition. Six are still missing.
The rescue group flew out Saturday morning with 49 airmen from the 48th, 79th and 55th Rescue Squadrons, 10 Guardian Angel personnel, two HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, and three Pavehawk helicopters.
An aircraft from the Arizona Air National Guard’s 161st Air Refueling Wing out of Phoenix helped refuel the Combat Kings midway through the flight, cutting the time it took to get to the ship.
“Without them the whole thing couldn’t have happened,” said Maj. Nelson Bennett, a Combat King pilot with the 79th Rescue Squadron.
One Combat King dropped the pararescuemen into the ocean along with inflatable boats and medical equipment near the Venezuelan boat Saturday.
The injured fishermen had burns on about 30 percent of their bodies and had third-degree burns to their feet and severe burns to their hands, said Capt. Russell Gray, a flight surgeon with the 48th Rescue Squadron, who communicated with the pararescuemen via a satellite phone while he was aboard one of the Combat King aircraft.
“They were severely dehydrated, because once they have burns to their body they can’t regulate the fluids in their body and they were essentially in renal failure,” he said.
Without the rescue group’s efforts and being able to reach the injured men in a timely manner, the pair likely would have died, Gray said.
The pararescuemen gave the injured sailors lifesaving medical care that included “aggressive fluid resuscitation” that exhausted their fluid supply, cleaning the men’s burns and giving them pain-management drugs including morphine, Gray said.
The pararescuemen were able to stabilize the injured men and then traveled with them on the Venezuelan ship until they were about 600 nautical miles from Mexico, where they were met by helicopters and an aircraft Monday afternoon.
The pararescuemen and patients were hoisted onto the helicopters and flown to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where they were loaded onto a plane and taken to Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego and then to a burn facility in nearby La Jolla.
“It was an awesome experience to be able to go out long range with everyone involved, especially my team to go in and save these individual’s lives, all of the complexities of the mission itself, it’s something I’m never gonna forget,” Schmidt said.
The two fishermen were alert and trying to communicate at the hospital, The Associated Press reported.
The men — who asked not to be identified — were in critical but stable condition and were being evaluated to see if they require surgery or can go home within the week, said Dr. Raul Coimbra, chief of trauma surgery at the regional burn center at the University of California-San Diego, told the AP.