Airmen turn heroes by saving 8 people encircled by BULL SHARK as boat capsizes in Tampa Bay

'I couldn't even tell you what made us go out there. It was the weirdest thing. We just knew we had to go,' claimed Staff Sgt. William Au


                            Airmen turn heroes by saving 8 people encircled by BULL SHARK as boat capsizes in Tampa Bay
Crew from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida saved eight people whose boat capsized in Tampa Bay (Wikimedia Creative Commons, Twitter/@AirMobilityCmd)
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Timely action by four airmen with the 6th Security Forces Squadron Marine Patrol Unit at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida saved the lives of eight people whose boat capsized in Tampa Bay and were being circled by a 10 to 12 foot long bull shark when the airmen found them.

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The Coast Guard had issued a "small craft advisory" that day warning boaters of heavy waves and wind from a recent tropical storm, even though the 6th Security Forces Squadron Marine Patrol Unit is trained to patrol the huge restricted coastline region of MacDill Air Force Base. According to a press release from the Air Force issued by 2nd Lt. Kristin Nielsen read, "Under this advisory, the MacDill marine patrol unit wouldn't normally do their routine sweep, both for their own safety and for the lack of boats in the water."

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Nielsen claims that one Security Forces airman had a peculiar feeling "deep in his gut that told him he needed to get in the harbor." A crew lead for the 6th SFS Marine Patrol, Staff Sgt. William Au, claimed, "I couldn't even tell you what made us go out there. It was the weirdest thing. We just knew we had to go."

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Airman 1st Class Kade Jones and Airman 1st Class Au boarded their patrol boat and began exploring the area near MacDill. They quickly found a pontoon boat that was distinctive not only for being the sole boat in the water, but also for being turned on its side. "At that moment, the marine patrolmen switched into action, realizing that gut feeling had led them to the eight victims who were now stranded in the water," Nielsen stated.

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As they dragged the boaters out of the water, the two airmen called for back-up. Jones then observed the bull shark, which she estimated to be between 10 to 12 feet long, encircling the boat that was upside down. Au referring to the survivors said, "They were clinging on to the wreckage. They were terrified."

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Airmen 1st Class Samari Rivera-Rodriguez and Savin Venable, two other marine patrolmen, returned to land after hearing their coworkers' radio call. They prepared and launched a second boat to assist. The choppy seas of Tampa Bay, which are normally tranquil, made the rescue and reunion of their fellow airmen more difficult than expected.

"It was really rough out," remarked Rivera-Rodriguez. "The waves were so tall it was hard to see where they were. The waves just kept coming up and down." To avoid overloading one boat, the crews of the two boats divided the survivors between them when they eventually came together. The key factors in that situation was teamwork and effective communication. Rivera-Rodriguez added, "We didn't have to worry about each other. Every patrolman handled the situation perfectly."

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"I didn't have to look over my shoulder and worry if everyone was doing their part. I trusted them," Venable said. "We conduct drills on how to pull people out of the water and onto the boat, but when it's rough like that something as simple as holding the boat in one place is extremely difficult," Au said. "But the airmen killed it. Hours on the vessel, getting used to the ocean and its conditions and challenges prepared them for this."

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The Coast Guard and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office sent boats to rescue the survivors and bring them back to land within 15 minutes. The Coast Guard and airmen coordinated to clear the wreckage from the capsized ship in the meantime. Au had a great deal of pride in his fellow airmen. The rescue also marks a triumph for the Air Force's underutilized but strong fleet.

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In a press release from March, Staff Sgt. Angelo Scaffido, commanding noncommissioned officer of the 6 SFS marine patrol, remarked, "We have to stay on our toes. Being out there in the water brings its own unique challenges."