Government Flying Service heralded for typhoon duty Mainland officials paid a visit to Government Flying Service headquarters yesterday to thank its fliers for rescuing 91 mainland sailors stranded on two barges at the height of Typhoon Prapiroon last week. 'President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Zeng Qinghong ... want me to pass their heartfelt thanks to the Government Flying Service team,' Vice-Minister of Communications Huang Xianyao said. It was the largest group of people the service's rescue team has saved, and controller Brian Butt described the two-day mission as the most difficult in his 26-year career. Some of the rescued sailors said they thought they were going to die as huge waves pounded their barges 100km southwest of Hong Kong last Wednesday and Thursday. The State Council sent a thank-you letter to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen the day after the mission was completed. Mr Hu, Mr Wen and Mr Zeng were 'highly concerned' about the incident and were 'relieved that the rescue mission was a success', Mr Huang said. Fifty-six seamen on barge HY298, owned by China National Offshore Oil Corporation, and 23 on another barge, Wing On VI, were plucked to safety in three separate groups in the operation on Wednesday. But 12 were left behind on HY298 when nightfall stopped the rescue. They were rescued the next morning. 'It is one of the most demanding rescues we have ever undertaken,' Captain Butt said. 'The wind was strong and the sea was high, the ship was pitching 45 degrees up and down, and rolling about 20 to 25 degrees side to side.' Captain Yu Shui, one of the 12 left overnight on HY298, said some of the desperate seamen had been drafting their wills. 'Our ship was aground but it kept banging against the rocks,' he said. 'Waves rose as high as 20 metres and water was seeping in. We thought that was the end.' But the words of a rescue officer rekindled their hope. 'He said, 'Comrade, don't panic, we promise we will come back for you'.' Acting senior pilot Cody Wong Yiu-hong said he had tried to cram as many people as possible into his helicopter. 'Including our team, there were 32 people on board at the time. It would have been risky if we had taken in any more.' Mr Wong decided the vessel could last at least until the next morning and the team resumed operations at 4am. Pilot Dickens Lam Tak-kan, responsible for the rescue from Wing On VI, said the wind was the strongest he had ever encountered. 'The headwind reached 150 nautical miles per hour. Normally it would only takes me 45 minutes to travel from the point of the incident back to the headquarters, but that day it took me an hour and a half.'