Even before the migrant smuggling boat crashed, capsized and splintered off the rocky shores of Point Loma, California, even before he sprang into action to save lives, Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 1st Class Cale Foy suspected something wasn’t right with the vessel.
It was May 2, 2021, and Foy was hiking near Cabrillo National Monument with his wife and kids, an idyllic Sunday tradition for the family.
But in the day’s low tide, Foy recalled seeing the boat going through a seaweed patch.
The 36-year-old and his family started hiking north along the beach line and down near the water, when Foy’s wife noted that the boat appeared to be approaching the craggy, windswept coast.
It looked empty, the Tampa native recalled.
But soon, the boat hit the rocks. And the people inside, along with their meager belongings, were thrown overboard as the vessel cracked up.
Foy’s wife asked if there was anything he could do.
A rescue swimmer assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3, Foy was forged for such a scenario.
Navy rescue swimmers live by the credo, “so that others may live.” With that in mind, and without his trademark mask, snorkel, fins or helmet, Foy leapt into action.
He came across another servicemember viewing the grim situation, and they began assessing how best to enter the water amidst a rocky coastline churning up a “washing machine effect,” with 5- to 8-foot waves crashing onto the coral.
Soon, Foy began seeing scores of people swimming in from the wreckage.
He jumped into the 60-degree water and started battling the waves to save as many lives as he could.
As he assisted a first wave of people in getting to shore, he scanned beyond the surf and saw many more of the 32 who had been aboard, all in need of help.
Foy found a rip current that pulled him and the other servicemember out in a way that avoided the big, crashing waves.
Once Foy arrived at the scene, “there was nothing left of the boat except the top portion of the cabin,” he said.
The water was thick with fuel, fiberglass and luggage. The other, unidentified, servicemember got hit by debris “and lost his bearings for a second,” Foy said. White sea foam limited any sort of visibility in the water as well.
They assembled near that top cabin portion and tried to count all the heads “that kept bobbing out of the water,” he said. That cabin wreckage became a mass casualty point, a spot of salvation for the immigrants tossed into the unforgiving Pacific, because there was no way to bring them back through the surf, Foy said.
One couple was relatively calm as Foy pulled them to the cabin top, but another guy was “kind of hectic” and speaking Spanish, Foy said.
“I didn’t know any Spanish beyond what my kids taught me through Dora the Explorer,” he recalled.
Still, they gestured through the language barrier, Foy grabbed the man by the back of his collar and swam him to safety.
All told, in those frenzied moments, Foy said he collected about five people and got them to the floating wreckage from which they were later rescued.
There were other bodies out there, too. But they were face down in the water.
Foy had the other servicemember stay with the survivors and ventured out to start collecting other victims.
As his tank ran empty, exhausted after constant zig-zag swimming to avoid debris while still wearing his hiking boots, a boat showed up “out of nowhere.”
Foy helped two others into the boat and hoisted himself in for the ride back to the Port of San Diego.
Along the way, he performed first aid and CPR on one victim, even as that rescue boat was ramping off the choppy waves.
The dock had become a casualty collection point by the time Foy arrived.
But all the people he had help foist onto the floating cabin wreckage were there.
All told, Foy spent roughly 90 minutes in the frigid Pacific, rescuing those in need, and then spent more time trying to save lives on the dock.
“I didn’t feel how cold I was until I got back to the dock, and they said to stop working,” Foy said. “It was nothing but shivers at that point.”
Rescue swimmers train to hectic scenarios, so Foy said he felt well-prepared to seize the moment that Sunday morning.
But fate is fickle; if the Foy family had chosen a different hike that day, might more have died?
All Foy knows is immense joy when he saw people safe on the dock.
“If someone else’s life was in play, I’d be willing to endanger mine, absolutely,” Foy said. “When opportunity arises, there’s no rescue swimmer who won’t jump to the cause.”
The Foy family had arrived at Point Loma around 9 a.m. that day.
Foy stayed on scene until late in the afternoon, doing what he could.
Three people died in the accident, while at least two more were hospitalized, The Associated Press reported a few days later.
Because of the efforts of sailors like Foy, many more survived.
The enormity of his effort, the lives saved, and lives lost that day, stuck with him.
Anyone who endures such a thing shouldn’t hesitate to talk about it, and get help if they need, he said.
“A lot happened that day,” Foy said. “I think there’s a mental aspect of it that nobody likes to talk about … any big type of situation.”
Foy said he was able to process the whole thing by leaning on his community and talking through it with them.
“As a rescue swimmer, I’m always going to lean on other rescue swimmers,” he said. “We’re more of family than coworkers.”
Foy was awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Medal for the lives he saved that day.
But according to his squadron superiors, Foy’s heroism wasn’t a surprise.
Chief Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) John Conant, Foy’s direct supervisor, called him “without a doubt my most indispensable First Class Petty Officer” in his nomination statement.
In addition to his main duties, Foy is the unit’s command fitness leader, morale, welfare and recreation president and a helps new arrivals get settled at the unit, according to Conant.
“His presence is seen and felt within the Command,” he said.
“On duty, and off duty in this case, AWS1 Foy definitely embodies the motto and never second guessed himself about what he had to do,” Conant wrote, “placing himself before others as he continuously does at the command for our Sailors.”
“Right place, right time, right Naval Aircrewman,” said Foy’s commanding officer at the time, Capt. William Eastham, in a 2021 statement. “This was a one-of-a-kind off-duty rescue, and thinking about the conditions he encountered without any of his prototypical SAR gear — in just a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and hiking boots — it really ups the ante. Courageous and immediate action to be sure. The Naval Aircrewman motto, ‘So others may live,’ never felt as true as it does today and AWS1 Foy’s actions certainly embodied just that.”
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Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.