YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — As their boat sank in the South China Sea, five desperate Philippine fishermen climbed to the roof of their cabin, lit a T-shirt on fire and wrapped it around a pole.
It flickered like a tiki torch in the midnight darkness, 50 miles from the Manila shore Wednesday.
About 1,500 feet above, Petty Officer 3rd Class Stanislav Oros thought he saw a faint light.
Oros told pilots Lt. Rocky Gutierrez and Lt. Chaz Nelson, who brought their SH-60B Seahawk helicopter down to about 400 feet for a closer look.
“That one looks like it’s taking on water,” Gutierrez heard from Oros, recounting the incident during a phone call Thursday with Stars and Stripes.
After spotting the sinking trimaran, the crew — which typically scouts out ships transiting the area — immediately changed over to a search-and-rescue mission.
The pilots notified the Yokosuka, Japan-based USS McCampbell, which cruised at full speed toward the scene from about 20 miles away.
The Seahawk crew then descended into a hover nearby the fishermen and dropped life rafts, just in case their boat submerged before help could arrive.
“In the hour we were there, the boat was about a foot above the surface,” Nelson said. “By a half-hour, we saw nothing except nets, so we caught it as it was sinking.”
While the ship sank further, another helicopter from the HS-14 squadron aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrived to provide support.
In about an hour, the USS McCampbell arrived and deployed two rigid-hull rescue boats. Shortly after 1 a.m., all of the fishermen were on their way toward the Navy ship.
On Thursday morning, the crew’s HSL-51 squadron pulled into Manila with the USS McCampbell for a scheduled port visit.
When they came ashore, they brought five very grateful fishermen with them.
For each member of the helicopter crew, it was the first time they were able to put their many hours of search-and-rescue training into practice.
“We always talk about how we could have a long career with no rescues — and we’re flying a helicopter designed to do rescues — so it was great to gain that experience,” Gutierrez said. “But the most important part is that those people are safe.”
Nelson said that he had already seen online messages of thanks from Philippine residents who had heard about the rescue.
“It was an awesome team effort,” Nelson added. “And it was totally lucky that we were pulling into the Philippines the next day.”