What it's like to rescue three mariners stranded on a desert island

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Senior Airman Jeremy Williams experienced what could be described as both a life-saving and life-changing moment when he helped rescue three mariners who were stranded on a small remote Micronesian island located in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

On Aug. 2, Williams, a 2015 Westmont Hilltop High School graduate, was flying aboard a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker when he snapped a picture of Pikelot Island, a piece of land he estimated to be about two football fields long. The crew members – Williams, Maj. Byron Kamikawa, Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen, Tech. Sgt. Shane Williams and Tech. Sgt. Rodney Joseph – were part of a larger mission to find the individuals who had gone missing three days earlier when taking a trip on a skiff between islands.

Toward the end of their three- to four-hour search time, Williams, a 23-year-old member of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling Wing stationed at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, nonchalantly snapped a cellphone picture of what he called a “cool-looking" reef and island.

He radioed up front to the pilot and co-pilot, asking if they had seen the land.

Williams was informed they had noticed it and planned to turn around because they thought the letters “SOS” were visible. Williams expanded his photo and “sure enough, it said 'SOS' in the sand,” spelled out in what appeared to be palm branches.

An Australian Army ARH Tiger helicopter lands on Pikelot Island in Micronesia. The SOS message of the stricken sailors can be seen on the beach.

An Australian Army ARH Tiger helicopter lands on Pikelot Island in Micronesia. The SOS message of the stricken sailors can be seen on the beach.

The aircraft doubled back. The crew then confirmed the distress message, along with seeing a makeshift hut and the individuals, one of whom was waving a red shirt.

“I just can't imagine what he's feeling right now when you've got a military aircraft circling the island at a couple hundred feet and you're saved,” Williams said during a WhatsApp interview.

He imagined the individuals, who had run out of fuel and gone off course, felt “euphoria” after they had been stranded in the blazing sun, likely with limited or no fresh water. The mariners were rescued early the next day, as part of a mission that also included the Coast Guard and Royal Australian Navy.

Playing an important role in saving their lives touched Williams deeply.

“They're alive because of us,” Williams said. “It was just such an amazing, life-changing feeling. It's incredible.”

Williams said the timing of events that led to finding the boaters had to “work out so perfectly.”

“There was a storm at the end of our search,” Williams said. “You could see it. It just looked like an everyday thunderstorm, just like a popup storm. We turned to go around it. When we did, we had to go through the clouds. Then we popped out. I was laying in the back. I was on headset with the pilots. I was laying back and I had my phone. I was taking photos as we were flying around. … That popup storm that we had to go around and then we went outside of our search area, (that's how) we found them.”

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©2020 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Related: Believe it or not, writing 'SOS' in the sand when you're marooned on an island actually works