MacDill Airmen rescue eight from overturned boat in Tampa Bay > MacDill Air Force Base > News

Have you ever been boating in Tampa Bay? A typical day on the bay features clear water, warm sunshine and delicate waves sheltered by the surrounding land.

However, for eight civilians on a pontoon boat that set sail on the bay on the morning of June 12, their experience was anything but calm. Luckily, the 6th Security Forces Squadron Marine Patrol Unit was there to help them when their typical day on the water turned into a nightmare at sea.

At approximately 11 a.m. June 12, Staff Sgt. William Au, crew chief of the 6th SFS Sea Patrol, sat with his partner, Airman 1st Class Kade Jones, as they surveyed the glistening water surrounding MacDill. From the inside, it looked like a typical day in Tampa. But despite the unassuming weather, there were huge waves due to a recent tropical storm.

The five-foot-high waves had led the US Coast Guard to issue a “small craft advisory”, warning boaters of increased wind and wave hazards. Under this advisory, the MacDill Marine Patrol Unit would not normally do its routine sweep, both for its safety and for the lack of boats in the water.

However, that day, Au felt a deep feeling in his stomach that told him he needed to get out into the bay. “We couldn’t even tell you what made us go there,” Au said. “It was the weirdest thing. We just knew we had to go.

This inexplicable urge led Au, joined by Jones, to load up their maritime patrol boat and sweep the waters surrounding MacDill. Moments after their sweep, the two airmen met their eyes on a distant pontoon boat. The boat stood out for them for two reasons; first, it was the only boat on the water. Second, he was completely knocked down.

At that moment, the sea patrols swung into action, realizing that intuition had led them to the eight victims who were now stranded in the water. After assessing the scene, airmen immediately began their rescue mission, calling for backup as they pulled the victims from the water.

Jones noticed a bull shark, believed to be 10 to 12 feet long, circling the capsized ship. “They were clinging to the wreckage,” Au said. “They were terrified.”

Airmen 1st Class Samari Rivera-Rodriguez and Savin Venable, maritime patrol officers from the 6th SFS, were back ashore when they heard the call on the radio. Within minutes they were outfitted and on their way to the sunken pontoon to assist in the rescue mission.

“It was really tough,” Rivera-Rodriguez said. “The waves were so high it was hard to see where they were. The waves kept going up and down.

When the second Marine Patrol Unit arrived, they divided the passengers between the two lifeboats to even out the weight distribution and avoid another sunken ship. In those times, teamwork and clear communication were integral to a successful rescue mission.

“We didn’t have to worry about each other,” Rivera-Rodriguez continued. “Each patrolman handled the situation perfectly.”

“I didn’t have to look over my shoulder and worry if everyone was doing their part,” Venable agreed. “I trusted them.”

Within 15 minutes of securing the passengers, the Coast Guard and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office arrived and everyone was safe. The civilians were carried ashore as the Marine Patrol Unit, in conjunction with the Coast Guard, began clearing the wreckage.

“It’s hard to train for something like that,” Au said. “We do drills on how to pull people out of the water and into the boat, but when it’s that difficult, something as simple as holding the boat in one place is extremely difficult. But the airmen killed him. Hours on the ship, getting used to the ocean, its conditions and its challenges, prepared them for this.

When asked what was the biggest lesson of the rescue mission, Au said how proud he was of the sea patrol boats.

“My biggest takeaway after getting everyone home safely was the performance of the Marine Patrol Airmen. They are young airmen barely 20 years old. Just watching them do their jobs while coordinating with other agencies, while simultaneously dealing with victims, showed how skilled and well-trained they are.

The teamwork and quick thinking between these four airmen was crucial in ensuring the safety of victims and responders.

“It was a lucky day that Staff Sgt. Au and Airman 1st Class Jones went out there that morning,” Ramirez-Rodriguez said.

The 6th SFS Marine Patrol Unit is the only fully operational, Airman-manned, 24/7 unit in the U.S. Air Force and is responsible for protecting one of the largest restricted coastal areas of the Ministry of Defence. Today, 6th SFS Marine Patrol Craft have become standard throughout the Air Force, often training temporary assigned Airmen to learn about the programs and procedures developed at MacDill.

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