The four divers had been missing for about 14 hours and the sun had set long ago. It was a moonless night and the only means they had to mark their position was a flashlight. Despite the long odds, a Coast Guard plane managed to spot the divers in the middle of the endless ocean and call in a Navy destroyer to pluck them out of the water.
It is because of the determination of their rescuers that this story did not end in tragedy.
The four divers, whose ages range from 16 to 64, had been diving with scuba gear about 63 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when they went missing on Aug. 13, according to the Coast Guard.
The group had gone spearfishing that morning, but the current and strong seas caused the divers to resurface far from their boat, Coast Guard Petty Officer Carter Beck later told The Dispatch newspaper in Lexington, North Carolina.
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The boat driver reported the divers missing at 2 p.m. and Coast Guard units in both North and South Carolina began a search of the area.
The Coast Guard Cutter Yellowfin; the Coast Guard Cutter Saltfish; an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina; and an HC-130J Hercules aircraft from Elizabeth City all scoured the ocean in search of the missing divers, a Coast Guard news release says.
Finding divers in the water is difficult in any conditions and searches for them are often unsuccessful because they wear dark wetsuits and the only visible part of their bodies are their heads, which are roughly the size of a basketball, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Coletun Frank, the aircraft commander.
Making things even more difficult, it was pitch black as the HC-130J looked for the four divers, Frank told Task & Purpose.
“Basically, what saved their lives was we had NVGs [night vision goggles] and they had a flashlight,” Frank said. “Otherwise, it’s literally finding a needle in a haystack.”
The plane was flying a search pattern when Coletun noticed a blinking light, so he turned the Hercules toward it, Frank said. After determining the first light was probably a buoy, the crew spotted a second light, which the plane’s loadmaster thought might be blinking “SOS” in Morse Code.
Within minutes, at 12:45 a.m., another crew member spotted the four divers in the water.
“He’s like, ‘That’s them!’ He counted one, two, three, four,” Frank said. “He’s like: ‘We found them!’ And he went super crazy.”
The mood aboard the plane, Frank said, suddenly became “pure excitement.”
“Imagine the excitement of being a defensive lineman and catching a screen or intercepting a pass and winning the game,” Frank said. “As an LSR [Long Range Surveillance] asset, we’re kind of like the linemen. We do the heavy work. If it’s a huge area with not a really known datum or location on survivors, they send us out to go search the most amount of area, basically the most expeditiously, because we can fly the furthest and the fastest.”
Ben Wiggins, who led the dive, later recalled to NBC News’ Sam Brock that the wind had picked up and the temperature dropped after sunset, so the divers were in a particularly dire situation when the Coast Guard found them after being missing for about 14 hours.
“It was ‘Thank you God;’ because we were all calling out: ‘God, please help us,’” Wiggins told NBC. “I said to myself: We need you now. We need you now.”
The Hercules dropped a life raft for the divers and then reported their position to the Navy destroyer USS Porter, which was nearby and taking part in an exercise.
Shortly afterward, the Porter arrived on the scene about 46 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina and the destroyer launched a rigid hull inflatable boat to bring the divers aboard. Video of the event posted online by the U.S. Navy shows the divers, almost indistinguishable from the ocean, being rescued by sailors from the Porter in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 14.
The Porter’s crew was initially told the “four bodies” were in the raft, so the Porter’s Executive Officer Navy Cmdr. Cameron Burnette and other senior members of the ship’s crew went out on what they thought was a recovery mission, Burnette told Task & Purpose.
But shortly before the destroyer launched a rigid inflatable boat to retrieve the divers, a crew member aboard the ship saw that at least one of the four people was alive, Burnette told Task & Purpose.
“They had only been in the life raft for 10 or minutes when we got there, and they were ecstatic,” Burnette said. “They thought we were the Coast Guard. I told them we weren’t the Coast Guard. And then they asked if we were the local police. And I was like: No, we’re the Navy. They were just super excited. To be honest with you, I don’t know that I would have had much energy had I been in the water for 14 hours.”
The divers were then medically evacuated and given a meal before boarding a Coast Guard small boat that took them ashore, where they were reunited with their families.
Navy Cmdr. Joe Hamilton, the Porter’s commanding officer, said his ship’s crew showed its professionalism by pivoting from the exercise it was taking part in, to a real-world rescue and then resuming exercises within hours.
“The amount of preparedness that the crew had going into this event, the resiliency that they showed bouncing from the events on Sunday during the rescue, bouncing right into the events on Monday like nothing happened – I will contend to anybody that I have the best crew in the Navy,” Hamilton told Task & Purpose. “They performed flawlessly, were able to turn these guys over to the Coast Guard; worked hand-in-hand with the Coast Guard. We are America’s team and I think this crew is the best America has to offer.”
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