MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla --
Have you ever gone boating in Tampa Bay? A typical day on the bay includes clear water, hot sun and delicate waves sheltered by the surrounding land.
However, for eight civilians on a pontoon boat that embarked on the bay the morning of June 12, their experience was anything but calm. Luckily, the 6th Security Forces Squadron Marine Patrol Unit was there to help them when their typical day on the water turned into a nightmare at sea.
At around 11 a.m. on June 12, Staff Sgt. William Au, 6th SFS Marine Patrol crew lead, was sitting with his partner, Airman 1st Class Kade Jones, as they looked into the sparkling water surrounding MacDill. From indoors, it seemed like a typical Tampa day. But despite the unassuming weather, there were immense waves due to a recent tropical storm.
The five-foot-high waves had led the U.S. Coast Guard to publish a “small craft advisory,” warning boaters of the increased dangers of wind and waves. Under this advisory, the MacDill marine patrol unit wouldn’t normally do their routine sweep, both for their safety and for the lack of boats in the water.
However, on this particular day, Au felt a feeling deep in his gut that told him he needed to get out in the bay. “We couldn’t even tell you what made us go out there,” said Au. “It was the weirdest thing. We just knew we had to go.”
This inexplicable urge led Au, joined by Jones, to load up their marine patrol boat and do a sweep of the waters surrounding MacDill. Within a few moments of their sweep, the two airmen locked eyes on a distant pontoon boat. The boat stood out to them for two reasons; first, it was the only boat on the water. Second, it was flipped completely upside down.
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. After assessing the scene, the Airmen immediately began their rescue mission, calling for backup as they pulled the victims out of the water.
Jones noticed a bull shark, believed to be 10-12 feet long, circling the capsized vessel. “They were clinging on to the wreckage,” said Au. “They were terrified.”
Airmen 1st Class Samari Rivera-Rodriguez and Savin Venable, 6th SFS marine patrolmen, were back on land when they heard the call over the radio. Within minutes, they were suited up and on their way to the sunken pontoon to assist in the rescue mission.
“It was really rough out,” said Rivera-Rodriguez. “The waves were so tall it was hard to see where they were. The waves just kept coming up and down.”
When the second marine patrol unit arrived, they split the passengers between the two rescue boats in order to level out the weight distribution and avoid another sunken ship. In these moments, teamwork and clear communication were integral to a successful rescue mission.
“We didn’t have to worry about each other,” Rivera-Rodriguez continued. “Every patrolman handled the situation perfectly.”
“I didn’t have to look over my shoulder and worry if everyone was doing their part,” Venable agreed. “I trusted them.”
Within 15 minutes of securing the passengers, the Coast Guard and the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Office arrived and everyone was safe. The civilians were transported to land as the marine patrol unit, working with the Coast Guard, began to clean up the wreckage.
“It’s tough to train for something like that,” said Au. “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. But the Airmen killed it. Hours on the vessel, getting used to the ocean and its conditions and challenges prepared them for this.”
When asked what the biggest takeaway from the rescue mission was, Au spoke about how proud he was of the marine patrolmen.
“My biggest takeaway after getting everyone home safe was how well the marine patrol Airmen did. These are young Airmen, barely 20 years old. Just watching them do their tasks while coordinating with other agencies, while simultaneously caring for the victims, showed how competent and well-trained they are.”
The teamwork and quick thinking between these four Airmen were crucial to securing the safety of the victims and the responders.
“It was a lucky, lucky day that Staff Sgt. Au and Airman 1st Class Jones went out there that morning,” said Ramirez-Rodriguez.
The 6th SFS Marine Patrol Unit is the only fully operational, Airmen manned, 24/7 unit in the U.S. Air Force and is responsible for protecting one of the largest coastal restricted areas in the Department of Defense. Today, the 6th SFS marine patrolmen have become the standard across the Air Force, often training Airmen on temporary duty assignments to learn about the programs and procedures developed at MacDill.