SIGONELLA, Sicily — When a distress call came in at 3 a.m. Thursday, it only took about two hours for a Navy P-3 Orion crew from Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, to reach the site of an exploded cargo vessel off the coast of Malta.

The 11-member Orion crew was sent to search for seven Dutch crewmembers feared dead after the Vigla blew up, said Navy Capt. Robert Lally, commodore of Combined Task Force 67, which is based in Sigonella.

Shortly after the Vigla exploded at midnight Thursday, the Rescue Command Center of Malta put out an SOS call. The British vessel Nottingham, closest at the time to the incident, responded and sent out a helicopter to conduct a search-and-rescue mission.

But with water temperatures around 59 degrees Fahrenheit, the mission changed to a search-and-recovery effort about two hours after the explosion. Lally said people can survive in such cold waters no more than an hour and 45 minutes.

By the end of their mission, the P-3 crew had helped in the recovery of five of the seven sailors’ bodies.

The Orion’s two-hour response is about half as long as a typical response time, Lally said.

“That’s about as good as it gets. Crews usually [respond] within four hours,” Lally said.

The P-3, originally built to search for submarines, is equipped with sensitive electronics that helped pinpoint the crewmembers and the sunken boat, Lally said.

The aircraft also has what Lally called a high “endurance on station” rate and can fly 10 to 12 hours missions. Thursday’s mission lasted 10 hours.

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