HONOLULU (AP) — It took several approaches and a smoke marker to convince three Pacific island castaways that a U.S. Navy crew had spotted their "help" sign three days after going missing at sea, a Navy officer in charge of the rescue said late Monday.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Harkins told the Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday night that the three men, whose small skiff capsized in the remote Pacific ocean days earlier, continued to frantically wave their orange life vests overhead as the sailors circled above in their aircraft.
"Initially they weren't so sure that we had seen them," Harkins said. "We made an effort to alleviate their concerns."
The flight crew first rocked the aircraft's wings, then made several low approaches before finally dropping a smoke marker in the water directly in front of the men.
"Eventually they actually started relaxing," Harkins said. "We have a photo of all three of them laying down, some on top of the 'help' sign."
The stranded men were reported missing last Tuesday after a wave overtook their skiff as they travelled about 140 miles from one Micronesian island to another, officials said.
The three spelled out the word "help" with palm fronds after they swam to the deserted island when their boat capsized. "I've never seen anything like that, nor am I aware of anyone in our community seeing anything like that," Harkins said.
The Navy crew, however, noticed heat from a signal fire, which had already gone out, before they actually saw the "help" sign on the beach, Harkins said.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Garrette Odor noticed the heat signal on his infrared camera, so the plane veered off and inspected the island. Petty officer 2nd Class Justin Burns then saw the word "help" spelled out in palm fronds on the beach.
About 15 seconds later, Harkins said, three men came running out of the jungle waving their orange life vests over their heads.
"Finding them on the island was not necessarily what we expected to happen," Harkins said of the mission. "We all stood up and gave each other high-fives."
The men's families reported them missing Tuesday after they failed to show up at the Micronesian island of Weno, where they were traveling from their home island, Pulap.
The U.S. Coast Guard notified the Navy, and Harkins' crew began their search after a stop in Guam early Thursday.
"Fortunately for them, they were all wearing life jackets and were able to swim to the deserted island," U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Melissa McKenzie said.
A local boat picked the men up and took them to back to their home island, which was only about 5 miles away from where they were found, Harkins said.
Harkins said he did not know the men's identities or their condition, but officials told the Washington Post they were not injured.
The Navy crew stayed overhead for about 4 hours and followed the local boat back to Pulap island, then made a final low pass and rocked their wings "to say goodbye," Harkins said.
Two bulk carriers searched a combined 17 hours for the men as part of AMVER, a U.S. Coast Guard voluntary search and rescue program. With AMVER, rescue coordinators can identify participating ships in the area of distress and ask them to help.
In the last two weeks, 15 people have been rescued in the Pacific with the help of 10 AMVER vessels and six aircrews, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
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