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'HELP' sign on remote island leads to rescue of 3 stranded fishermen

The three men had been stranded on a Micronesian island for more than a week after initially heading there to go fishing.
'HELP' sign on remote island leads to rescue of 3 stranded fishermen
Posted at 7:40 PM, Apr 11, 2024

Three men stranded on a remote Pacific island for more than a week were finally rescued thanks to the makeshift "HELP" sign they created from palm leaves.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy were in the middle of scouring an initial search area of 78,000 square nautical miles when an aircraft located the castaways and their distress signal on Pikelot Atoll, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, 100 miles northwest of where the trio had departed a week earlier. 

Lt. Chelsea Garcia, who coordinated the search and rescue mission the day the men were found, said the "HELP" sign in the sand was "crucial in their discovery" and a "remarkable testament to their will to be found."

"This act of ingenuity was pivotal in guiding rescue efforts directly to their location," Garcia said.

Crews began looking for the men on April 6 after a relative reported her three uncles, who are all in their 40s, hadn't returned from their March 31 voyage to Pikelot from Polowat Atoll, which is also part of the Federated States of Micronesia. 

The experienced mariners planned the 100-mile journey with hopes of fishing around the uninhabited Pikelot, but the outboard motor on their 20-foot open skiff became damaged, the Coast Guard said. Once stuck on Pikelot, their battery ran out of power before they could send a real distress signal, resulting in the palm leaf arrangement.

Officials told CNN and Stars and Stripes the men lived off coconut meat and water from a well until the U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft discovered them on April 7. The crew dropped "survival packages" to sustain the trio until more help could arrive, and the next day, a Coast Guard aircraft dropped them a radio to establish communication. 

The men confirmed they were healthy but wanted to return to Polowat, according to the Coast Guard. Then April 9, they were successfully rescued by Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry and taken back to Polowat.

But it wasn't just any rescue mission; it was a reunion, too, per CNN. The outlet states one of the first rescuers on the Pikelot beach discovered the three men were his relatives. One man was a third cousin, the others fourth cousins, CNN reports.

"This recent operation near Pikelot Atoll hits home the kind of difference we can make," said Lt. Ray Cerrato, commanding officer of USCGC Oliver Henry. "It's about more than just performing a duty; it's about the real human connections we forge and the lives we touch."

And even though Pikelot is extremely remote and only 31 acres, this isn't the first time a story like this has occurred on its beaches. CNN and Stars and Stripes report an almost identical rescue occurred there four years ago after three stranded sailors wrote out "SOS" in palm leaves.

The Coast Guard said it recommends all mariners equip their vessels with an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon to reduce these events and make time on the water more safe.

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