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The U.S. Coast Guard rescued three people on Tuesday from an uninhabited island in the Bahamas where they had been stranded for 33 days, surviving on coconuts, conchs and rats, the authorities said.
The stranded people — two men and a woman identified as Cuban nationals — were spotted waving a makeshift flag during a routine surveillance patrol of the area on Monday, the Coast Guard said in a statement.
Lt. Riley Beecher, commander of the aircraft that first spotted the trio, said his plane was flying around 500 feet in the air when he spotted a flag.
“I’ve seen this island many times, but it kind of stood out,” he said on Wednesday. “As we got closer, right on top of the flag, two individuals came out frantically waving their hands, trying to signal us down that they were really in distress.”
The surveillance crew dropped food, water and a radio to the island and began to communicate with the group. They learned the people were from Cuba, the woman needed medical attention and “they had been there for a whopping 33 days,” Lieutenant Beecher said.
A second plane, commanded by Lt. Justin Dougherty, dropped a package with water bottles, life vests, sugar packets and “whatever food we had on us for our own personal use.” They warned the group not to eat too much too quickly and assured them that a rescue helicopter or boat would be there shortly.
“They are incredibly lucky to be alive: It can be pretty unforgiving out there,” Lieutenant Dougherty said. “Luckily these people they did a great job of making some type of signal for us to see.”
The group, communicating with the plane by radio, told the crew that their boat had hit a storm five weeks ago and that they had swum to the island, Lieutenant Dougherty said. It was unclear where their boat was headed.
They also said they had been eating coconuts to stay hydrated.
“I was amazed how well they had it together, how coherent they were speaking to us,” he said. “They definitely sounded really relieved.”
On Tuesday, the three people were hoisted into a rescue helicopter and taken to Lower Keys Medical Center, a hospital in Key West, the Coast Guard said. They had no reported injuries.
Lt. Mike Allert, the commander of the rescue helicopter, said the rescue was delayed until Tuesday because of bad weather, ABC News reported.
The people had been stranded on Anguilla Cay, a small, uninhabited group of islands about 45 miles north of Cuba.
“Thanks to our aircrews diligently conducting routine patrols, we were able to spot people in distress and intervene,” Sean Connett, a command duty officer at Coast Guard Seventh District, said in the statement. “This was a very complex operation involving asset and crews from different units, but thanks to good communication and coordination between command centers and pilots, we were able to safely get everyone to a medical facility before the situation could worsen.”
After the three people were evaluated at the hospital, they were handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol, the Coast Guard said, and later transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.