The crew of a Charleston-based sportfishing boat rescued nine Haitian seamen from shark-infested waters in the Bahamas on Saturday.
The Haitians had jumped overboard when a 96-foot cargo ship they were on caught fire, said Jimmy McCormick, captain of the Billistic.
The ship had been loaded with supplies for Haitian relief efforts, including cars, propane tanks and food. It had sailed from Nassau and was headed toward Haiti.
"We were down in the Bahamas for a maintenance run," McCormick said. "The weather was nice and we decided we'd go fishing. We found some tuna fish and we were catching yellowfin. Suddenly we saw smoke on the horizon."
The crew realized the smoke had to be coming from a boat that was on fire, McCormick said. They took up their fishing lines and headed for the source of the smoke, traveling about 25 miles. When they were about seven or eight miles away, they looked with binoculars and could see a bright orange ball and black smoke. "That's when we realized it was a very big fire," he said.
The crew radioed for additional help. When they pulled alongside the freighter, it was fully engulfed in flames, McCormick said.
The Billistic is based in Charleston but spends about six months a year in the Bahamas, McCormick said. The crew on the boat during the rescue consisted of Hutch Holesberg, the boat's owner, and his father, 80-year-old Fred Holesberg, both of Eutawville; Richard Haddock of Kingstree; John Hodson of Goose Creek; and McCormick, who lives in Summerville.
"Everybody was helping. It was a team effort," McCormick said. "As we got closer to it, we prepared ourselves mentally. We thought there could be carnage, shark attacks, bad burns. We got out some blankets, our first aid kit and other supplies."
All of the freighter's crewmen were in the water, McCormick said. "Seven of them were on a little small, inflatable dinghy that was only half-inflated. There were two in the water, one with a life jacket and one without. They were all covered with diesel fuel and oil."
The crew pulled the men out of the water, gave them blankets and water, and took them to the marina at Cape Eleuthera, where they were turned over to Bahamian police and immigration officials, McCormick said.
McCormick said he doesn't think the seamen would have survived if the Billistic had not arrived when it did. "They were scared and exhausted. Some of them could not swim. When we picked them up, we could feel the heat off their ship."