Madagascar police chief identified as Serge Gelle, 57, swam to safety after his helicopter crashed while trying to rescue victims of a wrecked ship that killed dozens including five children.
The police minister and an air force mechanic succeeded in swimming for 12 hours to safety after their helicopter crashed in the Indian Ocean.
General Serge Gelle, 57, the secretary of state for the gendarmerie, was discovered in the water by a fisherman in a canoe who brought him to shore, according to officials.
Another passenger, Chief Warrant Officer Jimmy Laitsara, also swam to the beach at Mahambo.
“My turn to die has not yet come, thank God. I’m well. I’m just cold,” said Gelle in a video posted to Twitter by Madagascar’s defence ministry. “But I’m sad because I don’t know if my friends are alive.”
Gelle appeared on a lounge chair, still in his military camouflage, his hands pale and wrinkled by the water and the cold.
“There were four of us in the aircraft. I was seated behind the pilot,” he said of the crash on Monday evening.
“Not having a life jacket, I unfastened the seat and used it as a buoy. I stayed calm and took off anything heavy I was carrying like my boots and belt. I did everything to stay alive,” he said. Gelle said he expected to be back at work in 24 hours and said he lost his mobile phone in the crash.
Many in Madagascar applauded Gelle’s feat, calling him a “hero”, “extraordinary athlete” and “an example to follow” on social media.
The cause of the helicopter crash “remains undetermined”, authorities said. Gelle said gusts of wind had destabilised the aircraft. The helicopter pilot and another passenger are still missing.
The helicopter was one of the two flying a government delegation to view the site where a boat, the Francia, sank, drowning at least 64 people on board.
“Twenty-five bodies were found this morning near Sainte-Marie islands, probably due to sea currents, which brings the death total to 64,” gendarmerie general Zafisambatra Ravoavy told the AFP news agency.
The small cargo ship sank on Monday while it was illegally transporting 138 people, according to a statement on Wednesday by the Maritime and River Port Agency.
Efforts continue to rescue the more than 20 people still missing, said the agency.
The Francia sank on Monday morning about 20km (12 miles) from the town of Soanierana Ivongo.
“A flood in the engine room caused the massacre. Obviously, the boat had exceeded its loading capacity,” said Maurice Tianjara, deputy director-general of the maritime agency.