Lance Cpl. Zachary R. Mayo was asleep when the crew of a Pakistani fishing boat spotted him floating in the nothern Arabian Sea on Sunday, 36 hours after he was pitched off an aircraft carrier.
The crew removed its turbans, knotted them together, and pulled Mayo into the 45-foot fishing vessel.
The odds of this 20-year-old Osburn, Idaho, Marine surviving so long awash in the water? “I’ve never heard of it happening before,” said Lt. Scott Gordon, a Marine Corps spokesman in Washington, D.C. It’s especially miraculous considering Mayo apparently lost consciousness or fell asleep several times toward the end of his long swim.
“It takes quite a bit of effort to stay afloat,” Gordon said. “He gutted it out (but) being a good swimmer myself, I don’t know if I’d been able to do it.”
Mayo briefly described how he contemplated his fate as he floated and swam, alone at sea.
“What came to mind were all the things I’ve never done before. I thought that I would never be able to say goodbye to my parents and to my friends,” he said.
Mayo credits his boot camp water-survival training for keeping him alive. That taught him to remove his coveralls, tie the arms and legs together, and fill the makeshift flotation device with air. The fabric of the coveralls becomes fairly airtight when wet.
He probably looped the inflated portion of the clothing around his neck to keep his head above water. Then he was trained to hold this makeshift balloon closed with his hands, said Staff Sgt. Christopher Seefeld, who runs the water-survival program at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, where Mayo trained.
And Mayo would have had to periodically refill his coveralls with air and dampen the portion riding out of the water.
Marines spend four of their 56 basic-training days in water-survival classes. All are required to pass a basic course called Third-Class Combat Water Survival. That requires Marines to do simulated river crossings in full combat gear - helmet, flak jacket, uniform, rifle and boots.
They also learn to jump into a swimming tank with all of this gear and a pack on. They remove the pack and use it as a flotation device to get to shore, Seefeld said.
Marines are taught to stay curled as tightly as possible to avoid losing body heat.
If they are talented enough, Marines can be certified at one of three higher levels. Mayo earned his Second-Class Combat Water Survival rating, “better than average, not as good as the top,” said Staff Sgt. Charlotte Billings, of the San Diego operation.
That second-class course taught him to turn his clothes into a flotation device.
Marines also learn to stay as still as possible because movement keeps cooler water washing over their bodies, lowering their body temperature. There was no information available on the temperature of the water Mayo was in.
“But even if the water temperature is a balmy 75 degrees, after 36 hours he’s going to be in danger” of hypothermia, Billings said.
Mild hypothermia can begin when the core body temperature drops just two degrees. When it hits 79 degrees “it can result in a coma,” she said.
The Marine Corps is still investigating why Mayo went into the water around midnight last Friday. He went for a stroll to look at the stars, which is fairly routine, Marine officials say.
He apparently was on a narrow catwalk about 60 feet above the water when a hatch behind him swung open and knocked him off balance. Mayo appears to have fallen over the safety nets that stretch around the U.S.S. America.
He wasn’t discovered missing until 7 a.m. Saturday, when an air and sea search was launched. A search of the ship also was started.
Neither is an easy task. The America, a Kitty Hawk-class carrier, is essentially a floating city with an airport on top. It has a crew of 4,600 - three times the population of Mayo’s hometown.
It can steam along at 34 miles an hour, meaning it could have been quite a distance from where Mayo went into the drink before his absence was discovered.
“He said he swam some - he isn’t sure why because he couldn’t see anything,” said his mother, Cindy, who talked to her son Thursday for the second time since his rescue. “The fish were nibbling at him, but there was nothing serious,” she said.
There are still unanswered questions about what happened. The fishermen found Mayo on Sunday and took him back to their village - Gwadar, Pakistan.
But it is unclear why it took until early Wednesday for him to contact his parents or the U.S. Embassy. “We don’t exactly know the time line,” said Lt. Gordon.
“It took him awhile to find an English-speaking person (in Gwadar).”
Meanwhile, Mayo stayed with the deputy commissioner of the village - equivalent to a mayor and “they took amazing care of him,” Gordon said.
Mayo is quite level-headed, and just the sort of person who would keep his wits and do all of the right things, Cindy Mayo said.
His ROTC instructor, Sgt. Maj. Dan Garrett said there were other factors. “A lot of people asked the man topside for some help,” Garrett said.
“And it happened.”
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