This story, written by CNN's Ashley Fantz, is based on an exclusive Anderson Cooper interview airing on "AC360°" Monday night at 10pm ET
(CNN) -- The three friends pointed the nose of their 31-foot boat in the direction of the best fishing, near the oil rigs off the Louisiana coast.
It was April 20, a beautiful, calm morning. They caught a netfull. Hours passed into darkness. At around 9:45 p.m., they looked out and saw what appeared, at first, like a flare. Bradley Shivers grabbed his binoculars.
"Man, this doesn't look right," he said to his buddies Scott Russell and Mark Mead.
Shivers then reached for the boat's radio to phone another rig.
But then, over the airwaves: "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! This is the Deepwater Horizon! We are on fire! We are abandoning the rig!"
Then a boom, an explosion. The fishermen were 18 miles away.
"It hit your chest," Mead recalled.
"It was like a plane flying real low, really fast," said Russell. "It shook the boat. I mean, we knew it was bad."
Shivers radioed the Coast Guard.
"'Please, how many people can you hold on [your] boat?'" he was asked.
"'We don't know, you know, maybe 20-25, we've never, basically ... this is a fishing boat. I mean, we've never put that many people on it...They're like 'Please, please help!'
Shivers threw the throttle down.
As the Rambling Wreck sped toward the flames, they stowed their fishing gear and pulled out life jackets, floating pillows and rope.
They put on life jackets.
"We knew people were in the water," Russell recalled. "We had to be ready to jump."
Mayday calls crackled on the radio.
The 20 minutes it took the fishermen get to the rig felt like forever.
What are we going to see when we get there? Shivers thought.
The men kept communicating with the Coast Guard, describing their coordinates and what they were hearing over their radio as they closed in on Deepwater Horizon.
For a second, just a second, disbelief gripped them. Flames blazed across the water's surface, jumping 500 feet. And the heat....
People were flailing in the current, hurt, screaming. Others clung to life boats.
"We've got friends that are missing," someone shouted. "Please go search!"
The Deepwater Horizon was enormous, its destruction so vast that the friends had to keep using their binoculars. "You'd see something floating in the water and we'd go up and try to find out what it was. You know, is it a person?" Shivers recalled.
It would turn out to be debris.
The fire was so loud.
They worried there was something under the boat.
Shivers thought: Is the rig gonna explode some more and send debris our way?
Russell stood on the bow, and shouted to a man in a life boat.
"Who's in charge? What do we need to do? We're trying to help. We've got to have some direction."
He got no answer. There was only chaos.
The Coast Guard was still not there.
Time was compressed. Was it hours later? It was. Crew and supply boats eventually arrived. When their job was done, the fishermen, wordless, exhausted, returned to shore.
Months after the explosion, Mead is haunted by what he saw. A veteran deck hand, he had once experienced a fire on a charter boat. By comparison, Deeper Horizon's was like an inferno.
"You don't know the chills that went through me when I heard a Mayday ... a vessel in distress working on the water is bad enough, a Mayday -- that's life and death," he said.
"Could we have done more?" Mead asks himself. "There's a sense of guilt even though we did all we could."
When he got home after that night -- some 36 or 40 hours later -- he said he needed his wife. She's all he wanted. He fell asleep crying in her arms.
Mead, who is now working to clean up the oil, constantly thinks about those frantic hours. He wonders, What if they had chosen to fish closer to the Deepwater Horizon?
"We could have been sitting under that rig," Mead said. "We could have been on the victims' list."
He said he's taking anti-anxiety medications and though he rarely fought with his wife, he says he's gotten short with her lately.
Only adding to the stress, Mead said, the BP oil spill has destroyed his charter ship business.
All the friends are weary, just as anyone in the Gulf, added Shivers.
"We've gone through Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Katrina and failing economies, from collapsing real estate markets, and, you know, you've got to deal with this?" he said. "How much more do you have to put up with?...It really angers you, it really makes you just sick to your damn stomach."
Even more insulting, the friends say, is that they have not received a reply from BP or Transocean after numerous attempts -- as early as three days after their heroic efforts -- to share what they witnessed with the companies.
They have left messages with BP and Transocean's hot lines and claims departments and sent e-mails to the companies, Shivers said.
"'Hey guys, we were there. Can we tell ya what we saw? Can we, you know ... I may have information that can help ya'll out,'" Shivers said, describing his messages. "Zero calls. Nothin'. No one's ever called us back."
The men say they plan to sue BP for emotional distress. BP did not respond to attempts by "AC360°" to get a comment for this story.
"You know, those guys out there that night on the ... on the rig...," said Russell.
"They thanked us," Mead said.
The three men who have made their life in the Gulf, who know rig workers, want this: No one should forget the men who were killed that day.
"There's 11 families that I assume don't have a father, don't have a husband..." said Mead. "[That's] not supposed to happen when you go to work."
"AC360°" producer Ismael Estrada contributed to this report.
Watch Anderson Cooper 360° weeknights 8pm ET. For the latest from AC360° click here.