U.S. rescuers work to get Chinese sailors off boat

SAN DIEGO — U.S. Air Force rescuers worked to get two badly burned Chinese sailors off a boat in the Pacific Ocean as seven of their uninjured comrades and the bodies of two others returned home on a Chinese-flagged vessel, an official said Monday.

Six other Chinese sailors are believed to be missing after their boat sank. A crew aboard a Venezuelan fishing boat found 11 sailors floating in a lifeboat Friday afternoon, said Maj. Sarah Schwennesen of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. The Venezuelan crew said four sailors were badly burned, and two later died of their injuries, Schwennesen said.

The two burned in either a fire or an explosion will be transported to a San Diego hospital for treatment, officials said.

Airmen from the 563rd Rescue Group parachuted into the water off Mexico’s Pacific coast Saturday afternoon and used inflatable boats to reach the Venezuelan vessel.

They are continuing to care for the injured Chinese sailors amid preparations to hoist the patients and U.S. rescuers onto three helicopters and fly to Cabo San Lucas, a coastal city in western Mexico. The injured pair will be taken in a different aircraft to a burn unit in San Diego, accompanied by the airmen giving them care.

It wasn’t immediately clear when the transfer would occur, and Schwennesen said Monday morning that as far as she knew, the injured sailors were still on the Venezuelan vessel. Language barriers and communication delays can hold up information.

She said the seven heading back to China were in good condition after being rescued.

The Venezuelan boat had sent out a request for help around 5 p.m. Friday, and it was received by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.

Because of an estimated six-hour flight that included traveling over miles of ocean, a refueling aircraft was dispatched from the Arizona Air National Guard in Phoenix. The distance required to reach the sailors was the biggest challenge, Schwennesen said Sunday.

“The assistance of refueling by the 161st out of Phoenix was critical in providing faster care,” Schwennesen said. “They could refuel over the Pacific Ocean rather than fly down to Mexico first.”

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