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Exclusive: Pararescue Jumpers Tell How They Saved Chinese Sailors

US Air Force Pararescue Jumpers and injured Chinese fishermen hoisted from skiff
May 07, 2014

The Pararescue Jumper (PJ) Guardian Angel team that saved the lives of two Chinese sailors reported that their mission went smoothly, but would not have been possible without teamwork from military units, diplomats, and local response units. Team commanders spoke with American Military News upon arrival at their home at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

Air Force Combat Rescue Officer Lieutenant Ben Schmidt commanded the 6-man PJ team that jumped into the Pacific to board a Venezuelan ship that had found the Chinese sailors, descibed as fishermen, aboard the life raft as their ship was burning. Schmidt and his team treated the Chinese patients for two days aboard the Venezuelan fishing vessel.

The Venezuelan fishing vessel was not just a skiff as AMN first reported, but a 67-meter long ship, complete with its own small helicopter.

“When we got on the Venezuelan ship,” said Lieutenant Schmidt, “the day before they had already picked up the individuals from the Chinese ship. They said that they were out scouting tuna with their helicopter, and ended up seeing this ship that was on fire and they noted that there was a life raft full of individuals, so they steamed over to that location, picked up the individuals, then started heading to another coordinate, whatever that was. So by the time that we got there, they were quite a ways away from the Chinese ship that had blown up. We’re not sure if it sank, or really, the amount of crew that they had is unknown at this time.”

“By the time that we got to them, there was nothing but the Venezuelan ship, and the members of the Chinese crew that got picked up by the Venezuelan ship.”

Two of the Chinese were in critical condition.

“They had third-degree burns on up to 30% of their body,” said Captain Gray, who advised the PJ team. “At the time that the Guardian Angel team landed they were in critical condition, and they were able to stabilize the patients enough for them to still be alive today.”

The two that didn’t make it were burned on up to 100% of their body, according to Gray. They succumbed to their injuries before American rescuers arrived on the scene. “It would have been impossible to get there in time.”

The Venezuelan ship carried a small helicopter and several smaller skiffs and open boats. One of these skiffs was used to transfer the Chinese crew and Americans back to the American helicopters when they arrived two days after the rescuers, because the helicopters could not safely approach the Venezuelan ship.

Typical Rigged Alternate Method Zodiac (RAMZ) boat

Typical RAMZ appearance

“We flew out in a C-130 from Arizona,” explained Schmidt. “My team exited the airplane at 2300 feet.”

MSgt Chris Young was the jump master for the mission. “We kicked out two boats configured in what we call our RAMZ package, or rigged alternate method zodiac boat. That is an F47 Zodiac boat, with a 35 horsepower outboard engine. We fold the whole thing up into a 52-inch cube that weighs between 600 and 900 pounds, depending on how much equipment we have on it. The team left the aircraft at 2300 feet using MC5 parachutes.” The MC5 is an older model of parachute, but it still allows control of the landing spot, even at low altitude, Young explained.

“We inflated the Zodiacs, and then we motored them over to the Venezuelan ship,” continued Schmidt, “got on board, where we made contact with the captain of the ship, met the crew, and then they took us to the Chinese patients, the two of them that were burned. There were nine more there, but we didn’t need to treat them. We basically then treated those two for the next two days on the ship until the helicopters were within range.”

“At that point the C130s along with the helicopters flew out to our location 600 nautical miles off the Mexican coast,” continued Schmidt, “at which point we hoisted the two burn patients off of the skiff, so we could get back to Cabo San Lucas and do a transfer load onto the C-130 where Dr. Gray was, and then get them to San Diego to the burn unit, maybe three and a half or four hours away.”

The two Chinese sailors were taken to the Regional Burn Unit at the University of California, San Diego.

The care on board the ship involved “ICU-level care” according to Gray, involving “aggressive fluids, resuscitation, removing debris from the wounds, and pain management and fighting off infection.”

Those are typical activities for a rescue unit, according to Schmidt.

“I think the most important thing we can apply to this entire operation is the teamwork of everybody involved,” said MSgt Young. “It started off with a fishing vessel Falcon was the initial vessel that responded, and from there to a US Coast Guard / Air Force Rescue Center, the diplomatic clearance we needed from the country of Mexico to get down to Cabo, the Air National Guard unit in Phoenix, all the way up through the Navy and Naval Air Station North Island, the Fire Department in San Diego, and none of this would have worked if any one piece had fallen out, but they were all there.”

Thanks to Davis Monthan public affairs officer Maj Sarah Schwennesen for help in arranging this report.