Airmen rescue eight boaters in choppy waters off Tampa Bay

Eight civilians were rescued by Airmen in Tampa Bay, Fla., on June 12 after their pontoon boat capsized amid five-foot-high waves during a recent tropical storm, according to MacDill Air Force Base.

On the day of the incident, the Coast Guard issued a “small craft advisory,” warning boaters of increased wind hazards, according to a MacDill press release.

“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,” the statement said. “However, that day, [Staff Sgt. William Au] felt a feeling deep in his stomach that told him he needed to get out into the bay.

Au was a team leader with the Maritime Patrol Unit of the 6th Security Forces Squadron.

“We couldn’t even tell you what made us go there,” Au said in the statement. “It was the weirdest thing. We just knew we had to go.

Au and his teammate, Airman First Class Kade Jones, began scanning the waters around MacDill and, sure enough, found a lone pontoon boat. It capsized with eight victims stranded in the water.

“They were clinging to the wreckage,” Au said. “They were terrified.”

Part of their fear likely stemmed from the 10-foot-long bull shark circling the ship, the statement said. The airmen called for reinforcements and began pulling the eight victims out of the water.

Airmen 1st Class Samari Rivera-Rodriguez and Savin Venable, more 6th SFS Marine Patrolmen, received a radio call from Au and Jones requesting backup and went to the capsized pontoon to assist.

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

Airmen separated the eight people into two lifeboats to keep the weight distributed and avoid knocking over another lifeboat. Then, the airmen sped the eight boaters back to land.

“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.

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