(CNN) — Three boaters clung to a makeshift raft made of ice chests and fended off shark attacks and jellyfish stings in waters off Empire, Louisiana, until they were rescued 28 hours later, all thanks to a miraculous text message.
The three old friends set out on October 8 to fish for red snapper as they had done many times before that. But quickly, the rough seas began to rock their fishing boat, allowing water to seep into the boat.
“The moment we saw that the back of the boat had started to fill with water, I knew it,” Phong Le told NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday. “It was the perfect storm for the perfect accident.”
The front of the boat was moored to an oil platform, but the waves got worse and began to hit it hard. The men had about two minutes to react before their 25-foot center-console boat sank around 10 a.m., according to an interview with “Good Morning America.”
Quickly, the men created a makeshift raft, tying together two coolers with Le’s handkerchief. “Every time I go fishing, I bring a scarf because I always lose a hat,” Le said.
They tried to push themselves towards the oil rig to call for help.
“Oil rigs have some kind of foam, or something like that, so we thought we could come in and put out a distress call,” Le said. But they never did.
a shark attacks
As the sky darkened, the three men clung to the coolers, the moon giving them some comfort.
“Luckily there was a full moon because we had light,” Luan Nguyen told NBC. “We could barely see, so we took a detour at night.”
Until an unwanted visitor arrived. A shark hit Nguyen and a fight for survival ensued.
“The shark hit my life jacket and I tried to push it off. He wouldn’t go away, so I poked him in the eyes,” Nguyen told NBC. “I put my thumbs in his eyes and he left. I have a couple of little scars, but you know.”
Other sea creatures also made their presence known, making things even more difficult for the floating men.
“Every 15 to 20 minutes, the jellyfish would sting us,” Le told NBC. “In the middle of the night, I woke up to a jellyfish this big right in my lap,” Le added, noting during the interview that the jellyfish was as wide as he was.
The men were mostly silent the entire time they were there, bobbing in the water.
“It was really cold, so we were just trying to keep warm, hugging each other to keep warm,” Le said.
They were seen from the air
Le was separated from the group the next morning. She wanted to swim 5 miles to a shrimp boat and ask for help, she told NBC. But when she was about a mile away, the shrimper was gone, she said.
Trying to find out his location, Le took out his cell phone, protected by a waterproof case: it had less than 5% battery and was in airplane mode to save charge.
“I opened my phone and that’s when all of a sudden all the texts came in,” Le said. “The whole time I was floating I had no signal, but in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, the signal appeared.”
He wasted no time. She said she took a picture of her location on a map and texted it to a friend. The phone died shortly after.
The friend received the message and contacted the Coast Guard with the location of the boaters.
The men didn’t know it, but before the miraculous text message was sent, the Coast Guard was already on its way, Air Station New Orleans Lt. Katy Caraway told CNN Thursday. She was the co-pilot of a Jayhawk helicopter that helped rescue the men.
Five minutes into their flight, Caraway said they received the radio transmission that there was new information they could use in the search. It took them 25 minutes to reach the location sent in the text message.
After about 15 to 20 minutes of searching, a pilot of a Coast Guard plane cruising at an altitude of 1,000 feet saw one of the men waving from the water, Caraway said.
“Le was the first survivor that we picked up and he was actually the one that got separated from the rest of his group because he had tried to swim to a shrimp boat for help,” Caraway told CNN.
A rescue swimmer jumped out of the helicopter and swam out to check on Le, Caraway said.
“He didn’t speak at all,” he said. “He was completely exhausted.”
Caraway got into position, dropped the rescue basket, and lifted Le into the chopper.
It was at that point that the helicopter crew heard that the other two boaters had been found a mile away, Caraway said. So, they flew to the response boat to help.
Two boaters were rescued from sharks
Coast Guard Seaman Andrew Stone was on a response boat when he got the call about the other two men.
“They were being harassed by sharks when we got close,” Stone said.
Nguyen was bleeding, his hands covered in bites from blacktip sharks, Stone told CNN on Tuesday.
“His orange life preserver had been ripped in half by the fish,” Stone said.
Stone took Nguyen to the boat first.
“I just remember him picking me up, pulling me out of the water, it was like ‘wow, I did it,'” Nguyen told “Today” with tears in her eyes.
Petty Officers Joshua Mcanally and Cooper Butcher pulled the second man out of the water, Stone said.
“These guys were getting pretty severe exposure. They were very dehydrated, hungry of course,” Stone said.
The boaters were also sunburned and suffering from hypothermia when they were rescued on Sunday, he said.
“The temperature of the Gulf water, where they were, (was) 25 degrees Celsius, which sounds warm, but anything below body temperature steals heat,” Stone said.
The Coast Guard crew reunited the men they pulled from the water with Le, who was already in the helicopter, he said.
a unique rescue
Coast Guard members train for these types of events, but this rescue was anything but ordinary, Caraway said.
“People like this who have been in the water for a long time, who have been displaced from their vessel without any kind of communication, it is almost impossible to find and recover them,” Caraway said. “This rescue is unique.”
“The probability of finding these people before the text message,” Caraway added, “was slim to none. After the text message, I was still little.”
“Getting those people to their families is something that we train for every week and to do it operationally and actually save three survivors … is probably the best feeling you can get as a Coast Guard operator,” Caraway said. .
Coast Guard Sector New Orleans is planning a meeting between the survivors and all the response units that were part of the rescue.
“I just see it as doing my job,” Caraway said. “I am happy that they can spend the rest of their lives with their families.”
Jamiel Lynch, Jennifer Henderson, and Melissa Alonso contributed to this article.