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‘Getting winched out, I screamed at the top of my lungs’

AFM members and divers relive Gozo rescue

There was no hint of the horror to come when Abigail Borg and Christian Heitkemper arrived at Dwejra, Gozo, at 9am last Wednesday.

Conditions at the inland sea were “extremely agreeable” and the friends enjoyed a “fabulous and interesting” dive, said Ms Borg, 31.

But as the experienced divers stopped for decompression at the opening of the tunnel on the seaward side, it was evident conditions had deteriorated drastically.

Ms Borg swam close to the bottom as she entered the tunnel.

“As the tunnel got narrower, the current got stronger. We were being thrown around, risking a collision with the rocks,” she said.

Both being familiar with the area, they left and realised nowhere was accessible for a safe exit.

You cannot let yourself think about dying

After assessing the risks, they agreed that waiting for their families at home to raise the alarm was their only safe option, she said.

They spent all day staying close to the tunnel as they knew that that was where the search would start.

“You cannot let yourself think about dying,” said Ms Borg.

“When the police appeared on the cliff edge and signalled they could see us, the relief was immense.”

Over at the Armed Forces Air Wing in Luqa, duty pilot Mark Cassar, 38, received a call for assistance shortly after 5.30pm.

Within six minutes, he was in his helicopter’s cockpit surrounded by three fully equipped team members.

“We were just about to eat chicken when we got the call,” laughed flight engineer and winch man Carmelo Psaila, 42.

Also onboard were helicopter rescue swimmers Derek Pepe, 42, and Pierre Cassar, 29.

Fifteen minutes later, they were hovering over the sea at Dwejra in murky twilight and a strong southwesterly wind.

“We were searching for a dark shadow and a strange wave in a black sea full of waves,” said Sgt Psaila.

Aided by a strong torch held by S/Sgt Pepe, more torches held on the cliffs by police and Civil Protection personnel and the helicopter’s landing light, Sgt Psaila saw Mr Heitkemper, 43, after the second turn. The winch man directed the pilot to the target about 25 metres from shore as the chopper hovered with its tail perilously close to the cliff-face.

L/Bdr Cassar admitted that he feared the motionless diver was dead until he was lowered closer.

Once safely onboard, the German diver confirmed Ms Borg was drifting some distance away.

S/Sgt Cassar managed to land the chopper in Dwejra car park and, once Mr Heitkemper was transferred to a waiting ambulance, they headed back out to find Ms Borg.

By that time, the darkness, windy conditions and low fuel supply meant they were operating at the very limits of their equipment’s capabilities, “but we were determined not to lose her,” said S/Sgt Pepe.

Eventually, just before they would have been forced to return to base, Ms Borg was seen 50 metres from where they found Mr Heitkemper.

“Getting winched out I remember screaming at the top of my lungs a great big ‘thank you!’” said Ms Borg.

“It was aimed at the helicopter, at the skies and the sea I love so much.”

After flying Ms Borg to Gozo Hospital, the fatigued crew finally returned to base just before 7pm.

All agreed it was the most dangerous operation they had been involved in. To their knowledge, it was the first sea rescue by a Maltese helicopter and crew in darkness.

After spending around nine hours in the water, the divers were kept in hospital for observation and released the next morning. “Our rescuers deserve the utmost respect and gratitude. They performed at the top of their game in extremely difficult conditions,” they said.

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