NEW ORLEANS — For the first time, we're hearing from the Coast Guard rescue swimmer who saved a cruise ship passenger after he went overboard.
He says they lifted the man to safety just in the nick of time.
It was Thanksgiving night. Most people were watching football on an overstuffed stomach, but U.S. Coast Guard aviation survival technician Richard Hoefle was at work, being lowered into the gulf waters to save a life.
"Some people break down and cry, some people are in shock, and they don't know what's going on, some people are ecstatic and they act a little crazy because they are so happy to be out of the situation that they are in," Richard Hoefle, a U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician, in the New Orleans district said.
The life he was saving on this night was that of 28-year-old James Grimes. He was reported missing off of the Carnival cruise ship, Valor. It's unclear if he was in the water for 15, 18, or as long as 21 hours, but he was at his limit.
"Mr. Grimes had nothing left. He had no energy. He had nothing left to give. My best guess is that he had between a minute and 30 seconds left before we lost him completely."
Hoefle handed him the rescue sling. "Once I handed that to him, he just collapsed into it. He didn't have, he couldn't talk to me. I was able to get his name and the cruise ship he had fallen off of."
The four-man crew had been searching an area in the Gulf the size of Rhode Island. Then they got word that a vessel spotted him 20 miles south of Southwest Pass. The current was around three and a half miles an hour. The water temperature was around 70 degrees. Hypothermia was setting in. He had only one sock on.
"It's hard to keep your mind in the right place, and then to throw that Hail Mary last couple of minutes of waving, swinging a sock around, anything to make himself more visible to us, that's survival. He just had an incredible will to survive. And he did whatever he had to do," Hoefle said.
Each year a couple of dozen people go overboard on cruise ships. A vast majority are never found. The Coast Guard says it's very difficult to spot someone in the open waters.
"That was a one in a million and we got it done. We worked as a team and we were able to help somebody," Hoefle said.
The Coast Guard says its New Orleans unit is one of the most active for water rescues, and this October and November have been one of their most busy times.