A British man died when his boat capsized in 20-foot seas and 150 mile-an-hour winds after being caught ‘in the teeth’ of Hurricane Maria as the Category 5 storm hurtled through the Caribbean.
But a woman and two 12-year-old boys - believed to be the dead man’s family - were plucked to safety yesterday in a dramatic rescue involving a British Royal Navy helicopter.
The family spent a terrifying 24 hours alone in the Atlantic, their boat’s engine disabled, after making a distress call at 11.30am on Wednesday morning.
By the time help was able to reach them yesterday morning, the man was dead and the vessel, a 146-foot former oceanographic research vessel called the Ferrel, was overturned and had beached about 600 feet from the shore of Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Miraculously, the woman and her two sons had managed to climb out of the capsized boat.
They stood on the upturned boat and were eventually hoisted to safety by a British Navy helicopter. The man, who has not been named, was unable to escape the crippled vessel.
‘We initially got the call - a vessel in distress, a family of four, north of St. Croix, literally in the teeth of a hurricane,’ said Rear Admiral Peter Brown, Commander of the United States Coast Guard Seventh District, which includes Puerto Rico. ‘We were obviously concerned. We didn’t ask their names and didn’t ask why they were out there.’
While the hurricane roared all around them, the family on board the Ferrel were beyond help. The US Coast Guard had moved its cutters hundreds of miles away to sit out the storm.
‘They said they were disabled,’ said Rear Admiral Brown. ‘They lost their engine, or perhaps it was not strong enough to overcome the force of the winds and waves.
‘Knowing that we had no assets in the vicinity to be able to respond when they first called, it was a sinking feeling,’ he added.
When the worst of the storm finally broke, a Coast Guard plane, a cutter, a Navy ship, a Navy helicopter and a Customs and Border Protection plane, as well as a British rescue helicopter, began a search.
A radio beacon led them to the boat, which was about 50 miles from the site of the original distress call.
In footage shot by a US Coast Guard officer, the woman can be seen standing on the hull of the vessel holding what appears to be a flotation device.
One of the rescuers is seen rappelling down to the surface of the capsized boat and lifting the stranded survivors one by one. After completing the rescue, the helicopter is seen flying toward a carrier, where the three are led to safety.
‘There was obvious joy in the command center when the aircraft spotted them and the helicopter hoisted them to safety,’ said Rear Admiral Brown. ‘We are happy were able to rescue three and sad we weren’t able to rescue the fourth.’
The mother was said to come from Puerto Rico but the names of the passengers, who were recovering aboard a British vessel, were not released and the British Navy declined to comment.
The storm left the entire island of Puerto Rico and its 3.4 million inhabitants without power after flooding towns, crushing homes and killing at least two people.