‘I glanced at starboard and saw a small boat’
Four hours into a search flight for a missing fisherman and with a low-fuel warning, Major Mark Said had taken the decision to fly back to Malta when something caught his eye.
“I glanced at starboard and saw a small boat. It was more or less what we were looking for so I decided to make one quick low pass at about 50 feet. All I could see was that there was someone wrapped in white linen,” the major told The Sunday Times.
Maj. Said was piloting the Armed Forces of Malta’s plane that had been searching for 58-year-old Mario Axiaq, who spent more than 48 hours lost at sea with no food or water. He was huddled in the boat’s canopy to protect himself from the hot sun.
On September 21, the maritime patrol aircraft took off at 7.15am and searched a grid looping back and forth in an attempt to spot the missing fisherman. As soon as he saw the small boat, Maj. Said contacted the army’s operation centre and asked them to notify a large fishing vessel nearby.
“We climbed again and asked operations to inform the Italians to fly their helicopter to the area to have a closer look and, if need be, rescue,” he said.
As soon as the aircraft rose into the air to return back to Malta, Maj. Said saw the fishing vessel turn 180 degrees and slow down. Operations had contacted the ship and asked them to assist.
Once the plane landed at 11.30am, an Italian Air Force helicopter based in Malta and carrying a mixed crew of Maltese and Italians scrambled to rescue Mr Axiaq who, together with his 13-foot boat, had been taken on a Panama-registered vessel.
Mr Axiaq was located around 45 nautical miles northeast of Malta, bringing to an end a costly and intense two-day search coordinated by the army which deployed its resources, including aircraft and patrol boats, to find the fisherman. The helicopter hovered over the vessel while winchman Sgt Derek Pepe boarded the vessel and winched Mr Axiaq on board the aircraft, completing the mission. He filmed the rescue with a camera attached to his helmet.
Mr Axiaq had left in his tiny fishing boat on September 19 from Marsascala at around 11am with no satellite coordinates, emergency button, compass or emergency flares. He had planned to return at around 2pm but instead took a wrong turning and got lost in fog.
As soon as the alarm was raised, the army started trying to map out a way to find the missing man, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Mallia explained. This included checking that his car and trailer were still at Marsascala, the information he had given his family and whether he had any medical conditions, among other things.
His mobile phone was not reachable, so the army contacted the service operator to obtain the location when his phone was last within reach of an antenna. The company said Mr Axiaq’s phone last used reception from the Dingli base station. A day later, the company said it had refined the search and found his phone had pinged the Żonqor station.
However, with this “conflicting” information in hand, the army turned to SAR Ops, a sophisticated programme used by the US Coast Guard that plots out search areas according to the factors and information in hand.
At 7pm on Wednesday evening, a military aircraft flew off to Dingli while a patrol boat sailed out to physically check the boats in the area. However, they found nothing.
Throughout the night, the search and mission centre, coordinated by Captain Steven Spiteri, released a message about the missing man through the Urgent Marine Information Broadcast. This was sent out every 30 minutes by radio and as a printed message that was received by ships and vessels.
“We wanted to attract as much information as possible,” Capt. Spiteri explained.
This message was picked up by a deckhand on a fishing vessel who, on Thursday, informed the army that he had seen Mr Axiaq’s vessel a day earlier at 2.30pm around 14 nautical miles northeast of Malta.
“This information was solid – we put it in the SARS Ops and together with other factors such as drift and wind, we were given a new search area and that is where we found him,” Lt Col Mallia said.
Hours into the new search zone, Mr Axiaq was spotted by Maj. Said, who said the feeling of satisfaction was insurmountable.
“We train hard for this. Although we save people, such as illegal migrants, every day, this was something in particular since we had just one man on a boat. It was very difficult and the fact that everything worked to the right conclusion gives you great satisfaction.”
They recommended that anybody who chooses to go out on their boats should carry means of communication, such as radio, emergency position button, red flares or even a compass and should inform relatives or friends of their plans.