Africa Command Aids in Rescue Operation
By Air Force Capt. Corinna M. Jones
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti, Jan. 26, 2009 In an effort to save three Americans from a capsized sailboat, servicemembers from U.S. Africa Command's Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa participated in a three-day international rescue operation 260 miles off the coast of Madagascar.
One of the three Americans was found alive, spotted by servicemembers aboard a U.S. Air Force HC-130P -- a search-and-rescue version of the C-130 Hercules transport. The 69-year-old man had been in the water for 18 hours.
Searchers included teams from the United States, South Africa, France and civilian vessels in the region.
"We were notified by the [defense attache at the U.S. Embassy] in Madagascar that a boat registered to an American had capsized," Air Force Capt. John Brunner, director for the task force’s Personnel Recovery Coordination Center, said.
Brunner said center officials immediately contacted the Joint Personnel Recovery Center at the Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia.
"We asked them to look at their system to see if they picked up an emergency locator beacon, and they said they did," Brunner said.
Brunner's team coordinated with the CAOC; the Pacific Command’s Joint Recovery Personnel Center in Hawaii; Africom’s Joint Personnel Recovery Center in Stuttgart, Germany; the French Rescue Coordinator in Paris; and the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Rescue Coordination Center in Norfolk, Va.
"We contacted the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Rescue Coordination Center to see where they were receiving the emergency beacon and who it was registered to," he said.
Africom then issued the order for the task force to support the French Maritime Rescue Coordination Center on Reunion Island, east of Madagascar, to the best of their ability.
"We made the decision to launch one C-130 combat crew with the ‘Guardian Angel’ pararescue team both from the 449th Air Expeditionary Group and our joint combat search and rescue team on board that aircraft -- 17 crewmembers total," Brunner said.
Because the rescue effort was for civilians, the task force also coordinated with the U.S. Embassy.
"We go through the embassy, in this case Madagascar, because it was the closest embassy," he said.
In coordination with the French Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, it was decided South Africa would have the morning search block. The South Africans launched a C-130 from Victoria to search from sunup Jan. 21 to 1 p.m.
the following day. The U.S. HC-130P launched from Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, at 1 a.m. for an eight and a half hour flight to Reunion Island. After a refueling, the team picked up the search again at 1 p.m.
"That crew had a 16-hour-plus day. They searched in conjunction with a civilian motor vessel, the Auto Banner, and the South African C-130 and a couple of other civilian ships," Brunner said. "The Auto Banner and our aircraft found the vessel. One American had tied himself to it."
According to Brunner, the Auto Banner was directed to pick up the victim and stand off the capsized 43-foot sailboat until the FSS Nivos, a French navy vessel, arrived.
The U.S. HC-130P crew returned to Reunion Island at 5 p.m. and flew the next day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to search in conjunction with the South Africans, the Auto Banner and the FSS Nivos for the other two Americans.
The rescue was called off by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center on the evening of Jan. 23.
"The other two Americans are presumed missing," Brunner said.
How the men came to be so far from shore is still unknown, Brunner said. "Perhaps they were on vacation, on an around-the-world sail. We have no idea," he said.
"The rescue coordination worked exactly like it was supposed to,” he continued. “We provide the forces whereas the joint personnel rescue coordination centers provide the coordination," he said. "We were outside of [Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa’s] operational area, and the French didn't have forces to support. When they ask for the United States to help, we go help. It's all about a combined effort."
Air Force Col. Gregory Petrequin, commander of the 449th Air Expeditionary Group, said for the United States to expend this level of effort characterizes Americans' value of human life.
"The fact that American airmen and folks from all the services are willing to go out and fly incredibly long hours and expend the level of effort we did and get there as quick as we got there says something about our military, and it says something about our commitment by Americans to look out after fellow Americans," he said. "They put their airplane in a situation that they normally don't put their airplane in, though they are highly trained to do so."
Petrequin said he's proud of his team, and that although he knows they did everything they could, the general consensus is they wish they could have done more.
"I'm incredibly proud of the support of CJTF-HOA and what the 449th Air Expeditionary Group did to pull off this mission," he said. "Naturally we're very excited that one member was found alive, and our hearts definitely go out to the families of the other two sailors who are missing.
“We wish we could have done more, but we really want them to know that a lot of Americans worked really hard over the last couple of days to try and find their loved ones," he said.
(Air Force Capt. Corinna M. Jones serves with U.S. Africa Command's Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.)