HARTFORD, Conn. — A plume of black smoke alerted the crew of a cargo vessel to possible distress. As they pulled closer in the Atlantic Ocean, they found a fishing boat engulfed in flames and the sailors in the water.
The ship, K. Coral, hoisted 17 fishermen aboard. Two others drifted away while clinging to a makeshift raft made from fishing buoys. Lookouts searched for several hours, through nightfall and heavy wind and rain, before the crew pulled them both to safety as well.
The ship arrived this week to unload steel in New Haven, Connecticut, where a delegation from the U.S. Coast Guard on Monday honored the captain and crew for carrying out the rescue last week 900 miles southeast of Bermuda.
Park Hyog Soo, the South Korean captain of the Panama-flagged K. Coral, said in Wednesday an email to The Associated Press that the entire effort felt like something out of a movie.
"Until now I, and my crew, still can't believe that we had rescued 19 people," he said.
The captain provided a minute-by-minute account of the rescue effort in dispatches to the Coast Guard and Bermuda authorities.
After spotting the smoke from about four miles away, the 620-foot vessel changed course and as it approached the burning vessel, the crew saw a flare shot into the sky. Within a few hours, the first 17 men were aboard the ship, including two people with severe burns.
The crew of the K. Coral smeared honey on the wounds and applied dressings for the two burn victims, one of whom would die from his injuries. Meanwhile, the ship continued to look for the other survivors. Seven hours into the search, which by then also involved a second ship, the K. Coral's crew spotted the two men in the darkness.
"One survivor safely on board and the other look outs lost sights due to heavy rain," the captain wrote. It took until daylight, about two hours later, to find and rescue the last man who was seen waving an orange flag from the raft.
The seas were too heavy to deploy a rescue boat so the crew pulled the fishermen in with ropes, a crane used to load provisions and a cargo net.
The K. Coral's shipping agent in New Jersey, Mehmet Uygun, said he became emotional as he received the updates from the crew and thought about the difficulties they were facing.
"They did a remarkable job," he said. "That's the rule of the sea. You have to help the others."
Within hours of the completion of the rescue the morning of June 24, a U.S. Air Force crew flew out of Moody Air Force Base in Georgia to meet up with the K. Coral. Seven crew members parachuted out of the fixed-wing aircraft, swam to the ship and provided medical care to the fishermen. The surviving burn victim was flown to a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia.
The other surviving Indonesian and Chinese fishermen were taken to Bermuda where police took witness statements on the fire that doomed their vessel.