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Deployed 129th PJs search for Americans in capsized boat

Servicemembers from Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa participated in a three-day rescue operation 260 miles off coast of Madagascar in an effort to save three Americans from a capsized sailboat. (U.S. Navy photo)

Servicemembers from Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa participated in a three-day rescue operation 260 miles off coast of Madagascar in an effort to save three Americans from a capsized sailboat. (U.S. Navy photo)

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti (AFNS) -- Servicemembers from Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa participated in a three-day rescue operation in an effort to save three Americans from a capsized sailboat 260 miles off coast of Madagascar in late January.

One of the three Americans was found alive after being spotted by servicemembers aboard an HC-130P as the aircraft flew a low-altitude, low-speed, search and rescue mission.

The 69-year-old man had been in the water 18 hours.

"We were notified by the (American Embassy, Defense Attache) in Madagascar that a boat registered to an American had capsized," said Capt. John Brunner, the CJTF-HOA Personnel Recovery Coordination Center director.

Captain Brunner said they immediately contacted the Joint Personnel Recovery Center at the Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia.

"We asked them to look at their system to see if they picked up an emergency locator beacon, and they said they did," Captain Brunner said.

Captain Brunner's team coordinated with officials from the CAOC, the Pacific Command Joint Recovery Personnel Center, in Hawaii, U.S. Africa Command Joint Personnel Recovery Center in Germany, the French rescue coordinator in Paris, and the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Rescue Coordination Center in Norfolk, Va.

"We contacted the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Rescue Coordination Center to see where they were receiving the emergency beacon and who it was registered to," he said.

U.S. Africa Command officials then issued the order for CJTF-HOA members to support the French maritime rescue coordination center, on Reunion Island, to the best of their ability.

"We made the decision to launch one C-130 (Hercules) combat crew with (a)pararescue team both from the 449th Air Expeditionary Group and our joint combat search and rescue team on board that aircraft," Captain Brunner said. "Seventeen crewmembers total."

Because the rescue effort was for civilians, CJTF-HOA officials also coordinated with the U.S. Embassy.

"We go through the embassy, in this case Madagascar, because it was the closest embassy," he said. "We say, 'Hey, what can we do?' and they let us know."

In coordination with the French maritime rescue coordination center, it was decided the South Africans would have the morning search block. The South Africans launched a C-130 from Victoria to search from sun-up to 1 p.m. on Jan. 22. The U.S. HC-130P launched from Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, at 1 a.m. for an 8.5-hour flight to Reunion Island. After a refueling, the team picked up the search at 1 p.m.

"That crew had a 16-hour plus day. They searched in conjunction with a civilian motor vessel, the Auto Banner, and the South African C-130 and a couple of other civilian ships," Captain Brunner said. "The Auto Banner and our aircraft found the vessel. One American had tied himself to it."

The Auto Banner was directed to pick up the victim and stand off the capsized 43-foot sail boat until the FSS Nivos, a French navy vessel, arrived, Captain Brunner said.

The U.S. HC-130P crew returned to Reunion Island at 5 p.m. and flew the next day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to search in conjunction with the South Africans, the Auto Banner and the FSS Nivos for the other two Americans.

The rescue was called off by the maritime rescue coordination center on the evening of Jan. 23.

"The other two Americans are presumed missing," Captain Brunner said.

How the men came to be so far from shore is still unknown, Captain Brunner said.

"Perhaps they were on vacation, on an around-the-world sail. We have no idea," he said. "They were a long way from nowhere. It's about as far from civilization as you can get by yourself."

"The rescue coordination worked exactly like it was supposed to. We provide the forces where as the joint personnel rescue coordination centers provide the coordination," he said. "We were outside of CJTF-HOA's operational area and the French didn't have forces to support. When they ask for the United States to help, we go help. It's all about a combined effort."

For the United States to expend this level of efforts characterizes Americans' value of human life, said Col. Gregory Petrequin, the 449th Air Expeditionary Group commander.
"The fact that American Airmen and folks from all the services are willing to go out and fly incredibly long hours and expend the level of effort we did and get there as quick as we got there, says something about our military and it says something about our commitment by Americans to look out after fellow Americans," he said. "They put their airplane in a situation that they normally don't put their airplane in, though they are highly trained to do so."

Colonel Petrequin said he's proud of his team and that though he knows they did everything they could, the general consensus is they wish they could have done more.

"I'm incredibly proud of the support of CJTF-HOA and what the 449th Air Expeditionary Group did to pull off this mission," he said. "Naturally we're very excited that one member was found alive and our hearts definitely go out to the families of the other two sailors who are missing. We wish we could have done more, but we really want them to know that a lot of Americans worked really hard over the last couple of days to try and find their loved ones."