Just seeing the face of Coast Guard Seaman Andrew Stone moved Luan Nguyen to tears Wednesday as the fisherman remembered Stone pulling him from the water to end a harrowing 28-hour ordeal of floating in the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend.
“I just remember him picking me up, pulling me out the water. It was like, ‘Wow, made it,’” Nguyen said.
Nguyen and fellow fisherman Phong Le shared gripping hugs in a heartwarming, surprise reunion on NBC's "TODAY" show with three Coast Guard members who helped bring them and one other fisherman to safety.
When crews aboard a helicopter and a 45-foot Coast Guard boat found them in the water around 2 p.m. Sunday, the boat crew “witnessed two of the boaters fending off sharks,” along with injuries to both boaters’ hands, the Coast Guard said.
The ordeal began the morning of Oct. 8 when Le said their boat capsized off the coast of Empire, Louisiana. The boat was tied to a nearby oil rig and started to get hit by large waves, causing the back of the boat to take on water, according to Le.
“It was like the perfect storm, the perfect accident,” he said.
Once the boat started sinking, Nguyen, Le and fellow fishermen Son Nguyen, who’s still recovering from the ordeal, all grabbed their life vests and tied together two ice chests with a bandanna as a makeshift raft.
Le said they initially tried to swim to the oil rig in the hope of making a distress call on Le’s cellphone, but they ended up floating in the water for hours in the darkness overnight.
“That was a pretty scary thing,” Luan Nguyen said. “Good thing there was a full moon out so we had light, but we couldn’t see. We could barely see anything. So we just drifted at night.”
The Coast Guard ended up recovering a life vest that was eaten through by a shark.
“The shark hit the life vest, and I tried to push him off,” Nguyen said. “He wouldn’t go away so I jabbed him in his eyes. ... Put my thumbs in his eyes, and he took off. I got a couple scars, but you know ...”
In addition, Le said that every 15 to 20 minutes the men were “constantly being stung by jellyfish.”
“And it wasn’t small,” Le said. “In the middle of the night I woke up with a jellyfish this big in my lap.”
The men also endured sunburn, dehydration and signs of hypothermia.
They didn’t speak much, instead clinging to each other for warmth. After the sun came up on Oct. 9, Le decided to make one last-ditch effort to get help with 5% of the battery left on his cellphone.
He said he swam about 4 miles toward a shrimp boat, but the vessel motored off in the opposite direction. Le then opened up his phone in its waterproof case, and text messages poured in, alerting him to the fact that he had a signal.
Le took a screenshot on Apple Maps of their location and texted it to a friend with a message saying their boat sank and they were floating out at sea.
The Coast Guard had already been searching for the men after being told by a family member the previous night that the fishermen had not come home from their trip. Le’s text message allowed them to pinpoint their location and rescue them about 25 miles offshore.
On Wednesday, the men reunited with Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Keefe, who coordinated the effort in the command center, Lt. Katy Caraway, who was the co-pilot of the craft that hoisted them to safety, and Stone, who was in the boat that rescued two of the men directly from the water before they made it to the helicopter.
“It’s absolutely incredible to be able to look Phong here in the eyes again,” Conway said.
“It’s one reason why I joined the Coast Guard,” Stone said. “I love this branch because we’re able to do stuff like that. I can be able to see him alive and recovering, it’s awesome.”