Published Monday, May 5, 2014 | 7:54 p.m.
Updated Monday, May 5, 2014 | 10:09 p.m.
SAN DIEGO — U.S. Air Force rescuers on Monday hoisted two badly burned Chinese fishermen from a Venezuelan boat hundreds of miles off Mexico's Pacific coast to take them to a San Diego hospital.
The two were among 17 Chinese crew members believed aboard a fishing vessel that caught fire and sank in the Pacific Ocean. Two died from burn injuries, seven were determined to be in good condition and six are believed missing, said Maj. Sarah Schwennesen of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz.
A Venezuelan fishing vessel spotted a life raft with 11 fishermen Friday and sent a call for help.
Responding to the call, airmen from the Air Force's 563rd Rescue Group parachuted into the water Saturday afternoon and used inflatable boats to reach the Venezuelan vessel.
Rescuers treated the two burn victims, stabilizing them enough that they could be hoisted into helicopters and then taken to a hospital in San Diego.
Schwennesen said the two fishermen were due to arrive at the University of California, San Diego's regional burn unit Monday night after a pit stop at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and the Naval Air Station North Island in California. Pilots flew for nine hours over the Pacific Ocean to recover the fishermen.
Language barriers have hampered communication between the crews of the boats and U.S. officials, slowing new details on what happened out at sea, Schwennesen said.
The two bodies and seven crew members were transferred to a Chinese-flagged vessel in the area to be taken home, she said.
It was unclear what caused the fire aboard the Chinese fishing vessel before it sank more than 1,000 miles off Mexico's Baja peninsula, said Air Force and Coast Guard officials.
The officials said neither of their branches was searching for the six fishermen believed to be missing, and they did not know who else would be looking.
"The Air Force has not been tasked with that mission," Schwennesen said.
Rescuers had been preparing the patients to be loaded into metal baskets and then lifted off the Venezuelan boat, Air Force officials said. Each basket was to be hooked via a steel cable to a separate helicopter overhead.
One rescuer would then latch on to the outside of the basket as it is hoisted up to the helicopter so the patient can continue to be monitored.
"It's very difficult to hoist off a ship, because the ship is moving, the waves are moving up and down, the wind is blowing things around," said Tech. Sgt. Brandon Daugherty, an Air Force rescuer who has done such missions but was not part of the latest. "It takes a lot of coordination."
It was the second such dramatic sea rescue by U.S. crews in recent weeks.
Last month, three federal agencies, a fixed-wing aircraft, a Navy warship and scores of personnel successfully rescued an ill American baby girl and her family from their broken down sailboat 900 miles off Cabo San Lucas.