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Airmen help save fishermen at sea after ship catches fire

Maj. Alex Keller (left center), a surgeon with the 720th Special Tactics Group, supervises the medical treatment of a burn patient on an HC-130 Combat King II, June 23, 2016. Keller, alongside pararescuemen and aircrew from the 372nd Rescue Group, assisted in the rescue and evacuation of fishermen stranded off the shore of Bermuda when their vessel caught fire. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Alex Keller, center left, a surgeon with the 720th Special Tactics Group, supervises the medical treatment of a burn patient on an HC-130 Combat King II June 23, 2016. Keller, alongside pararescuemen and aircrew from the 372nd Rescue Group, assisted in the rescue and evacuation of fishermen stranded off the shore of Bermuda when their vessel caught fire. (Courtesy photo)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) -- Members of a special operations surgical team assigned to the 720th Special Tactics Group here worked to save the lives of two critically-burned fishermen rescued 500 miles off the coast of Bermuda on June 22.

The fishermen had been stranded when their vessel caught fire, and the special tactics medical team and pararescuemen provided urgent care, while a special operations aircrew evacuated the patients to a hospital in Virginia.

"The satisfaction that comes from saving a life is unparalleled and that's exactly what we do,” said Col. Thomas Dorl, the commander of the 347th Rescue Group, home of the aircrew and pararescuemen. “We specialize in personnel recovery and our Airmen are professionals who perform their duties to the best of their ability so that others may live."

On June 21, the U.S. Coast Guard requested assistance from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to rescue 19 fishermen whose fishing vessel caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean.

A Panamanian cargo vessel, the K. Corral, discovered the stranded fishermen clinging to the remains of their fishing boat and picked them up out of the sea. Two men were in critical condition and needed immediate medical care due to severe burns on their bodies.

“We received a request for long-range U.S. Air Force rescue support from the USCG and immediately started coordination,” said Lt. Col. James R. Woosely, the center’s commander. “The 347th Rescue Group accepted the mission, and, at that point, the AFRCC continued to monitor the situation and coordinate with the USCG and other supporting agencies as needed.”

An HC-130J Combat King II departed Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, carrying the team of pararescuemen, a combat rescue officer and the 720th STG surgeon and critical care nurse.

Two teams of pararescuemen parachuted into the ocean to meet with the patients aboard the K Corral. The plan was for the ship to head to Bermuda and evacuate the patients from Bermuda via C-130 aircraft.

A KC-135 Stratotanker from Tennessee Air National Guard’s 134th Air Refueling Wing also flew in to assist.

“Air refueling extended the range and loiter time of the HC-130J and prevented delays that would occur in a ground refueling,” Woosely said.

Maj. Alex Keller, a surgeon with the 720th STG, was contacted by the pararescue medical director for his expertise with burn patients. Keller and Lt. Col. Daniel Donahue, a special operations surgical team leader and critical care nurse, joined the 347th RQG team in Georgia and flew to Bermuda.

The short-notice timeline gave Keller and Donahue less than 2 1/2 hours to get all of their medical gear and flight gear prepped and packaged, including medications and equipment from the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron pharmacy team.

In Bermuda, Keller and Donahue evacuated the patient from the K. Corral and transported them to the waiting HC-130 for evacuation. Keller served as the medical consultant for the medical management of the burn patient. Donahue guided the nursing care of the casualty while allowing the pararescuemen to perform most hands-on tasks.

Their expertise in their fields added to the efforts of the pararescue team on board of the aircraft.

“Care on a critically-injured casualty in a fully staffed, well-stocked intensive care unit is very challenging,” Donahue said. “On a ship, boat, ambulance and plane is a whole new level of complexity. Maj. Keller and I facilitated the highest level of clinical care possible with the massive operational constraints placed on the mission.”

The injured fishermen are Taiwanese nationals and while they are not members of the service, special tactics members are called upon to rescue any life in need.

“All the heavy lifting and direct patient care was actually provided by the PJ team and Lt. Col. Donahue,” Keller said. “Between them and the prior care rendered by the amazing PJ team that parachuted to the ship, the patient was in pretty good shape for what I expected based on the severity of his burns.”

Keller, Donahue and the team of pararescuemen turned the patient over to the trauma team at the hospital, and the patient is currently in stable condition, according to Keller.

“He survived because of quality training, hard work and the amazing courage of the PJ team that parachuted into the ocean to save a stranger 900 miles from home, the aircrews that got them there, along with the captain and crew of the K. Corral that spent several hours searching for and plucking all 17 survivors from the water,” Keller said. “They are absolutely the heroes of this story. Lt. Col. Donahue and I are humbled to have played a small part.”

Despite the emergency response team’s efforts, one burn patient later died from their injuries. The other burn patient has since been flown to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, for further medical care.

(First Lt. Erik Anthony, 618th Air Operations Center Public Affairs, contributed to this article.)

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