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Friends Survive Their Boat Sinking and Shark Attack — How 'Split Second' of Phone Service Led to Rescue

People 10/14/2022 Diane Herbst

Phong Le Luan Nguyen adrift in the Gulf of Mexico © Provided by People Phong Le Luan Nguyen adrift in the Gulf of Mexico

With just life vests and coolers to stay afloat, three childhood friends survived a frightening ordeal at sea — which included a shark attack — after their boat sank in the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend.

It all began when the wind picked up and waves started crashing with almost no warning onto the 24-foot motor boat the trio were using to fish for red snapper on Saturday morning. Within minutes, the vessel started sinking, as waters flooded the deck of the boat, which was tied to an oil rig. 

"I told everybody to put on their life vest," Phong Le, the boat's owner and lifelong fisherman, who works as a realtor and real estate developer in Harvey, Louisiana, tells PEOPLE.

As the boat was going down, Le, 41, and pal Son Nguyen, 43, who works in construction, grabbed two 90 quart RTIC ice chests, and tied them together with Le's bandana to create a makeshift flotation device.

The friends, which included Luan Nguyen, 40, a civil engineer, needed all the help they could get. By about 10 a.m., Le's boat was completely gone and they were adrift on ice chests.

"The wind was way too strong," says Le. "It was pushing us so fast that we couldn't even swim back to the oil rig."

They were "literally being washed away at sea," adds Le.

Phong Le Son Nguyen with fish he caught soon before their boat sank © Provided by People Phong Le Son Nguyen with fish he caught soon before their boat sank

While they were in the water, fish nipped at them and jellyfish of all sizes stung their hands, legs and back. The boaters estimate they were stung every 15-20 minutes.

"You're trying to kick them off, but it kind of grabs at you," says Luan, who has known Le and Son since about fifth grade.

"It was pretty much like a bunch of hypodermic needles just sticking at one time," adds Le. 

RELATED: 3 Men Fending Off Sharks Rescued 'Just in the Nick of Time' in Gulf of Mexico After Boat Sinks

Throughout the day, Le and his friends called 911 on their iPhones, but since there was no signal, the messages didn't go through.

Once night fell, the water became even rougher. "The wind was howling, it was blowing constantly 20 miles per hour," says Le.

"I would see the moon, and the moon would disappear," he continues. "I would see the moon and I could see the waves rolling and it would just crash over us every maybe five minutes."

Phong Le The boat that sank © Provided by People Phong Le The boat that sank

They used string to tether themselves to the coolers, which allowed them to rest at times and not float away. Meanwhile, the constant beatings from the waves and wind were exhausting — and they were getting cold from the air.

"We pretty much just hunkered down with each other, held each other pretty close, and then just tried to stay warm," says Le. "The water was warm, but anything that your body was above the water was freezing."

Then, around 2 a.m. a Coast Guard plane flew overhead. Le took out his iPhone 13, protected in a waterproof case, turned on his flash and blinked it three times as an SOS.

"I kept doing it, but the moon was so bright, there was no way they could see us," he says. The phone's battery drained to 5 percent. 

RELATED: Boaters Whose Ship Sank in Shark-Infested Waters Have Emotional Reunion with Coast Guard Rescuers

Water started infiltrating Luan's life vest, and he began slipping into the sea. Le gave his friend the small, second life jacket he had around his neck, but it didn't help much. 

As the sun rose Sunday morning, a shrimp boat was off in the distance, anchored off some oil rigs. They tried to swim toward the vessel, dragging the ice chests, going against the current and the wind. They weren't getting anywhere. 

"I made a decision and told them that we had one shot. I'm going to just leave the pack and swim toward the shrimp boat by myself," says Le.

"And then next thing he's gone, and that's the last we see him," says Luan. "We don't see him after that."

Phong Le Phong Le, left, Coast Guard Seaman Andrew Stone, and Luan Nguyen © Provided by People Phong Le Phong Le, left, Coast Guard Seaman Andrew Stone, and Luan Nguyen

Then the next phase of the harrowing ordeal began.

"Out of nowhere this shark attacks," Luan says. "I reacted by just trying to push him off, but that didn't work. So I just took my thumb then I just jammed it in his eyes and it took off."

The shark ripped through his life vest, leaving Luan with no flotation help except the ice chests. (The Coast Guard later posted a photo of the shredded vest.)

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As one of the chests he was using to stay afloat began to fall apart in the water, Luan began to think he might not make it. 

"I was preparing," he says. "But I was going to give it everything I had." 

Meanwhile, Le, swimming toward the shrimp boat, got within about a mile of it before the vessel powered off in the opposite direction.

And with just five percent battery left, Le checked his location and took a screenshot. Then, text messages flooded in. "I had just that split second to have some kind of signal," he says.  

Le checked on the last text he received, which was from his friend, Van To. He texted To to say that his boat sank, he was floating at sea, and he also sent the screenshot of his location. 

"I saw he received [it]," says Le. "And then my phone cut off."

Phong Le Screenshot of Phong Le's location that he sent to a friend © Provided by People Phong Le Screenshot of Phong Le's location that he sent to a friend

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That friend then forwarded the text to Le's fiancée, who sent it to the Coast Guard. The agency had already been searching for the trio since a family member had alerted them Saturday night, kicking off a search greater than the area of Rhode Island, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Keefe, a Sector New Orleans Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator, said in a press release.

Soon after receiving the text, the Coast Guard zeroed in on the position and spotted Le and his friends from the air, as seen in this dramatic video footage.

Phong Le Phong Le, left with friend Van To, who received Le's location text © Provided by People Phong Le Phong Le, left with friend Van To, who received Le's location text

A helicopter plucked Le from the water while Coast Guard personnel on a boat pulled Luan and Son from the gulf.

"Oh, man. That feeling of getting pulled out of the water was the best feeling ever," says Luan. "I was like 'I can stop swimming. I can stop. I could really stop now.'"

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After receiving water — and a bandage for Luan's bitten hand — the friends were transferred to the same helicopter that picked up Le for a ride to University Medical Center New Orleans.

"Everybody just passed out," says Luan. "We were spent." 

By 1 a.m. Monday, all three had left the hospital and returned home. Le reunited with his young son and fiancée, and Luan with his parents. (Son Nguyen, meanwhile, continues to feel the effects of the salt water on his voice and is having trouble speaking, says Le.)

On Tuesday, Le and Luan flew to New York City — and the following morning had a surprise reunion with Coast Guard Seaman Andrew Stone, who had pulled him from the water. Seeing Stone brought Luan to tears. 

"I choked up," he tells PEOPLE. "It was an emotional moment for me. We owe them everything."

Le too is full of gratitude. "Oh man, I owe them my life," says Le. "I mean, if it wasn't for them we would've never been found."

As the friends recover from their ordeal, they have another reunion to look forward to: next week they will be meeting the 30 Coast Guard personnel involved with their rescue, at a base close to their homes.

"I want to meet all of them," says Luan. "There's no words that you can say to show your appreciation for something like that.

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