Eight civilians were rescued by airmen in Tampa Bay, Florida, on June 12 after their pontoon boat capsized amid five-foot-high waves from a recent tropical storm, according to MacDill Air Force Base.
On the day of the incident, the Coast Guard published a “small craft advisory,” warning boaters of the increased dangers of wind, according to a MacDill press release.
“Under this advisory, the MacDill marine patrol unit wouldn’t normally do their routine sweep, both for their safety and for the lack of boats in the water,” the release said. “However, on this particular day, [Staff Sgt. William Au] felt a feeling deep in his gut that told him he needed to get out in the bay.”
Au was a crew lead with 6th Security Forces Squadron Marine Patrol Unit.
“We couldn’t even tell you what made us go out there,” Au said in the release. “It was the weirdest thing. We just knew we had to go.”
Au and his teammate, Airman 1st Class Kade Jones, began a sweep of the waters around MacDill and, sure enough, found a lone pontoon boat. It was capsized with eight victims stranded in the water.
“They were clinging on to the wreckage,” said Au. “They were terrified.”
Part of their fear likely came from the 10-foot-long bull shark circling the vessel, according to the release. The airmen called for backup and began pulling the eight victims from the water.
Airmen 1st Class Samari Rivera-Rodriguez and Savin Venable, more 6th SFS marine patrolmen, received a radio call from Au and Jones asking for backup and made their way to the capsized pontoon to help.
”It was really rough out,” Rivera-Rodriguez said in the release. “The waves were so tall it was hard to see where they were. The waves just kept coming up and down.”
The airmen separated the eight people into two rescue boats to keep the weight distributed and avoid flipping another boat. Then the airmen sped the eight boaters back to dry land.
“It’s tough to train for something like that,” said Au. “We conduct drills on how to pull people out of the water and onto the boat, but when it’s rough like that something as simple as holding the boat in one place is extremely difficult. But the Airmen killed it. Hours on the vessel, getting used to the ocean and its conditions and challenges prepared them for this.”