The hard rescue of Ala 46: only three survivors in a canoe with dozens of deaths on the high seas

No one was moving inside the canoe when the soldiers descended from the helicopter. Not hours before, when they saw the boat from the air, they noticed excessive movement. Only two people showed signs of life aft.

The men of the 802 Squadron, Group 82, Wing 46 of the Air Force are used to these tough rescue missions in the waters of the Canary Islands. That is why they know that when locating this class of boats, joy tends to overwhelm the crew. The merriment is greatest among those who have risked their lives to get to a better place when one of the aircraft appears in the sky, after several weeks adrift. They did not remember that days after the fact. What stood out to them, on the contrary, was the silence.

This time the patera -and this is something that was learned later- I had been lost in the waters of the Atlantic for 22 days. It is believed that a good part of its crew died during a long journey, of almost a month, that would have begun in Mauritania.

Therefore accustomed to being received as guardian angels, when the boat noticed in the distance, the normal thing for its passengers was to stand up to indicate the position. “For the soldiers, the feeling was strange – recalls José María Cambero, chief commander of the Air Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) of the Air Force -. When they saw them, no one reacted.”

The discovery is made during one of the routine training missions, about 500 kilometers off the coast of La Island of El Hierro (Santa Cruz de Tenerife). There is hardly any wind that morning. The sky is clear. It has not yet arrived noon when from the aircraft a distant point at sea can be seen in the distance.

Those who travel in it wandered aimlessly on the dangerous Atlantic route to the Canary Islands. It would take two days from its location so that, this past Wednesday, the cayuco arrived at the beach of Los Cristianos (Tenerife) turned into the scaffold of the greatest known human tragedy in the archipelago. A total of 24 migrants died. Only as the soldiers approached did they discover the horror.

But inside the boat there were still three survivors. At that time that was the important thing. They had to be rescued anyway. This is how the soldiers of the Armed Forces found them, who now report to EL ESPAÑOL that morning in which they went out to sea like any other Monday in training session. As soon as they found them, they quickly activated all the available resources to transport them to land.

The helicopter pilot, from above.

Air Force

Nothing like it was remembered in the islands -not even in the Air Force- since the shipwreck of a boat that occurred in 2009, when it landed on the coast of Lanzarote with 21 deaths in its interior. The figures are staggering, although perhaps more impressive is a data that is not available today: how many people left Morocco, Mauritania, Gambia or Senegal on that boat.

Sources from the Ministry of Defense and immigration experts consider that this migration route is, at the moment, the most dangerous in the world. A maritime cemetery whose ups and downs, storms and risky currents are not presented as an impediment for thousands of immigrants to continue choosing it. Sometimes that risky option is the only way out and escape from the hunger and war that has ravaged Africa for years.

“We prepare for these situations”

Several days later, the first thing that the soldiers of the Search and Rescue Service (SAR) of the Armed Forces remember is the smell of the bodies, in a state of decomposition when they descend into the boat.

There were two, First Sergeant Fernando Rodriguez and First Corporal Juan Carlos Serrano, who came down the cable from the helicopter to the canoe. Three hours had already passed since the location of the boat.

Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Martínez Pagán, Head of Group 82 (SAR) of Wing 46, says that they carry out some 20 similar missions throughout the year providing support to Salvamento Marítimo and the rest of the authorities who are in charge of the immigration problem in the Canary Islands. . None as tough as this on your men.

One of the soldiers, descending the cable towards the boat to complete the rescue.

One of the soldiers, descending the cable towards the boat to complete the rescue.

Air Force

Once they come down from the heights they realize that in the midst of the tragedy there are three people alive. But with little energy, barely enough to signal them with his hands. They are two men and a woman “dehydrated” and “unable to get up” as the two soldiers recall.

Sand from that moment on they become their highest priority. “Nwe prepare you for these situations. We try to focus on purely operational aspects, we put our feelings aside, “explains the lieutenant colonel.

“In that state, a person is as if was asleep or unconscious“explains Martínez. Those who were alive did not have the energy to move. The soldiers approached them. They crossed the ship from one side to the other, making their way through the timbers, avoiding, in just 20 meters in length, the inert bodies of the passengers of The boat died during the trip. They were caught by hand and loaded onto the aircraft. It took 40 minutes to complete this operation.

The rescue

The three survivors were so weak and they had not eaten for so many days that there was no way to move them.

“We did not know how many people were alive at that time. We launched a first helicopter and then, upon verifying that there were at least 15 people on the boat, a second one positioned in El Hierro was activated, ready to leave,” says Lieutenant Colonel.

The helicopter, in full rescue of the cayuco this past week.

The helicopter, in full rescue of the cayuco this past week.

Air Force

The great logistical difficulty of the operation lay in completing the rescue almost 500 kilometers from the coast, in a maritime zone far from the shipping routes. Ignacio Crespo, in command of the rescue helicopter, calculated that he had more than five hours of flight ahead for the return.

After the notice of the plane that had sighted the boat hours before, the aircraft was loaded with fuel at the Air Force air base in Gando and even came out equipped with the additional tanks.

He returned to the scene and then began the maneuvers. They also warned another helicopter to be alert in case it had to leave for that enclave lost at sea immediately.

Arrival in Tenerife

In total, about 1,200 kilometers, round trip, with the added weight of the survivors in the cargo cabin. When they got into the helicopter, the two women and the man who survived the tragedy received juice and water from the helicopter’s sanitary soldier so that they could recover what little strength they had left.

One of his superiors, Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Martínez, says they couldn’t even hold the bottle in their hands. Their subordinates were in charge of taking care of them from the time they were brought up until they were left at the doors of the hospital.

Several hours after the discovery, it had taken about 40 minutes to carry out the rescue. They still had a person to get on the device. The helicopter had the necessary fuel to make the way there and back, and that is why some of the soldiers offered to stay there as long as necessary in order to guarantee the return trip with the survivors.

It was not necessary. The pilots recalculated the range: they had saved fuel on the way to the boat thanks to a flight with a tailwind. They only had to transport three more people. Much fewer, unfortunately, than they expected to meet.

Thus, the two reserve tanks they had loaded were enough to return to El Hierro and even to continue to Tenerife if necessary.

One of the members of group 82 from wing 46, on a mission last year.

One of the members of group 82 from wing 46, on a mission last year.

Air Force

It was in one of the hospitals on that island that the flight ended. Upon arrival, a PCR test was carried out on all the soldiers and the three immigrants to prove that they were not infected. The lieutenant colonel highlights the fortune of those who remained alive in that dinghy adrift away from land, from the main routes and from the surveillance of the Maritime Rescue services. “It was fortunate that we were close. It is very rare to find boats out there.”

The cayuco would arrive two days later, on Wednesday, at the Port of Los Cristianos under enormous journalistic expectation, towed by the Guardamar Talía. The 24 corpses that were transferred to the Institute of Legal Medicine remained inside. The forensics examined them right there, before a large security cordon made up of the National Police, the Civil Guard, the Red Cross, Frontex and firefighters.

22 were older. There were also two minors. Different NGOs have highlighted so far that in the boat, in addition to the 27 passengers detected, an approximate number would travel to fifty people.

Before ending the conversation, with everyone safe, Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Martínez Pagán reminds the reporter that this mission was just one more day of a job for which they prepare day after day. He acknowledges that some of his people have been affected by the situation, that it has been “very hard”, but he also says that wing 46 has a psychological care service that helps them prepare for these situations. And that he is tremendously proud of his men.

The lieutenant colonel has offered all those who participated in the rescue to be able to leave for a few days to recover from the shock of events. Proud of the mission, he reminds the journalist what the emblem of the 802 squad is: an angel throwing a life preserver from the sky.


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