The Greatest Gift Of All

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Mario Romero

HOUSTON – It was his birthday. Melquisedec Acevedo Jr. was 13, a teenager. His father and two family friends wanted to make the day memorable, so they took him on a fishing trip just for “the guys”. He had asked and asked his father for so long to go out on a fishing trip, and it was finally going to happen.

Everything was just how he dreamed it would be. They parked their car at Texas City Dyke, launched their 21-foot boat, and headed out past Galveston Island and into the Gulf of Mexico. They turned south east anchoring near some oil rigs. That’s when everything started to go wrong.

The engine stopped working, and they noticed water coming into the boat. The boy watched as his father called 9-11. Melquisedec Acevedo Sr. tried to explain to the 9-11 operator what was happening and asked for help but before he could finish, his cell phone lost connection.

With the water coming in, they waited, and then the Coast Guard called them. Acevedo Sr. tried to explain where he was and what was happening, but the problem was that he didn’t know those answers himself. He started to describe what he could see, but his description was vague and unsure and before he could find something definite to describe, the phone lost connection again.

Their boat was sinking. Acevedo Sr. made sure everyone put on a life jacket. He managed to reach the Coast Guard on his cell phone and reported that they were sinking. Before he could tell them anything else, the cell phone died for the last time.

Acevedo Sr., his son and the two family friends went into the water as the boat went down just after 11 a.m. Sunday morning. The boy entered the cold water wearing his normal clothes and a lifejacket. The three adults huddled close to the boy to keep him warm. They prayed the Coast Guard would arrive soon.

Sector Houston/Galveston dispatched a rescue boat crew from Coast Guard Station Galveston after the boat crew made a decision on where to go based on Acevedo Sr.’s description. However, when the boat crew arrived they could find neither boat nor people.

Immediately, the rescue boat crew started searching the area, another rescue boat crew from Station Galveston and a rescue helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Houston joined them. With no definite information on where the boat might be or whether it was anchored, the Coast Guard started a massive search to find the four missing people. Every Coast Guard crewman on the boats and in the helicopter knew that the water was too cold for the people to survive more than a few hours.

“The water temperature varied between the mid-50’s and lower-60’s Sunday night through Monday,” said Lt. Paul Lalicata, one of the pilots in the first search. “Any temperature below normal body temperature can start causing hypothermia. Under those conditions standard survival guides put survival time at between six and eight hours. As the search went into the night, our hopes of finding them alive were not high.”

The rescue boats searched until the crews reached their exhaustion limits, forcing them to return to the station. Coast Guard patrol boat Manta and a rescue helicopter continued the search through the night.

Monday dawned with clear, calm water, near ideal search conditions. A patrol boat crew, two rescue boat crews, two helicopter crews, a patrol jet, a Coast Guard Auxiliary airplane and a C-130 aircraft scoured the water. The crews crossed over, under and around each other as they searched for four people in a vast blue field of water.

“It’s always hard to locate small objects in the water,” said Lt. James Reid, one of the helicopter pilots. “Only a small portion of the boat was visible and even with bright colored lifejackets, you’re talking about looking for something the size of a basketball in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a miracle we were able to find them at all.”

As the day wore on, it was starting to look like finding them alive would be an impossible feat.

Then at about 3 p.m. one of the rescue helicopters spotted the bow of the boat. There were three people floating nearby, only eight miles from shore. The first helicopter lowered its rescue basket, but none of the three moved. A second helicopter arrived and the rescue swimmer quickly jumped into the water.

“I was swimming towards the boy, who was still holding on to the body of his father, but he had his back towards me and didn’t respond when I called out to him,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric Barhan, the rescue swimmer. “I had to splash him with water to get him to realize I was there. He was slow and hypothermic. I knew he had to get out of the water fast. I waved to the helicopter to send down the basket. The boy could barely move, and I had to put him into the basket myself. I then checked the other two for vital signs, but couldn’t find any. The crew flew back to Galveston while I stayed in the water with the two bodies.”

The helicopter crew rushed back to Galveston and delivered the hypothermic boy to the University of Texas Medical Branch. Lt. Justo Rivera, who spoke Spanish, went into the hospital with Acevedo Jr.

“I stayed by the boy’s side going into the hospital, and he was still responsive, which was a good sign,” said Rivera. “I was able to keep him awake and talking, and found out that he had seen the fourth man swimming towards an oil rig Sunday night in the area where their boat went down.”

The patrol boat Skipjack recovered the bodies of Melquisedec Acevedo Sr. and Jose Vasquez and took them to the base in Galveston, where they were transferred to the Galveston County Coroner.

“We might have been able to find them sooner if they had been using some sort of signaling device,” said Reid. “Any boater can help us out by having flares, smoke signals, water dye, signaling mirrors or strobe lights. With a marine radio, we can actually triangulate a boater’s location. An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) sends a signal to a satellite and gives us that boats exact position, taking the search out of search and rescue.”

Coast Guard crews searched for Castellon on Monday night, all day and night Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. No clues to his whereabouts where found. The Coast Guard suspended the active search Wednesday afternoon after searching an area the size of Connecticut for three days with airplanes, helicopters and boats.

“It was a miracle the boy survived,” said Rivera. “It looks like the two men who were with him held him out of the water as much as possible, keeping him warm at their own expense. They gave everything they had to keep him alive, and it paid off. Thanks to those two men, we were able to get the boy to the hospital in time.”

It had started as a dream come true, a wonderful birthday with his father. It quickly became a nightmare, fighting the cold and trying to stay alive. It ended in a miracle, two men giving their lives to give a boy the greatest gift of all. A chance to live.

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