|28-year-old James Grimes crashed on November 23rd from his Carnival Valor leaving New Orleans Harbor. He was found alive in the Gulf of Mexico on Thanksgiving Day. (Luke Sharrett/Image)|
The Carnival Valor was at sea after only one day, and a call came through the loudspeaker to a particular passenger to report to customer service.
The 28-year-old US citizen was reported missing by his family that morning.
On Thanksgiving Day, the 3756-seater cruise ship Balor, which departed from New Orleans the day before, was heading to Cozumel, Mexico.
Flight attendants soon began searching passengers' cabins, said Shanta Miller White, who was traveling with her husband and family. An employee entered her cousin's room and said, "You just need to ensure everything is OK."
“We didn't know what was going on,” recalled the 48-year-old Mr. White. Then another announcement came at dinner. The ship must change course to conduct a search and rescue operation.
Mrs. White felt sick as he imagined the unknown passenger alone in the water.
“Did they fall to the floor? Did the shark catch you?” Mr. White recalled the thought. She started to pray.
According to the Coast Guard, the passenger was identified as James Grimes, 28, who was traveling with his parents and siblings on a five-day cruise. His family last saw him around 11pm the night before.
But when there was no sign of him by 10:45 on Thanksgiving morning, the family notified the crew, the Coast Guard said.
At 8:10 p.m., more than nine hours after his family reported him missing, a passing oil tanker spotted the man near the mouth of the Mississippi River and alerted the Coast Guard.
Rescuers found Mr. Grimes struggling in the water, frantically waving his hands and trying to keep his head above the surface.
He was in shock, mildly hypothermic, and extremely dehydrated when the crew of an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter lifted him, said Lieutenant Seth Gross, who managed the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue operation. However, he was alive and in stable condition.
Mr. Grimes, whose family described him as an excellent swimmer, walked the Gulf of Mexico in 65-70 degree water for several hours, enduring rain, 20-knot winds, and 3-5 foot waves. Coast Guard officials said sharks and blacktip sharks are common.
“This case is definitely special,” said Lieutenant Gross. “The survival instinct, the will to survive is just crazy.”
How often does this happen?
Falling from a ship into the open sea can be a cruise passenger's worst nightmare. Statistics from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) show that going overboard is very unlikely, but the results are usually catastrophic.
According to CLIA, 25 people fell overboard in 2019, of which only nine were rescued.
In February, a woman aboard the Carnival Balor jumped off the 10th deck of the ship to escape security officers who were trying to detain her after getting into a physical fight with them. Her body was never found.
In December 2016, a 22-year-old man fell from the 12th floor of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship after drinking too much. His parents sued the cruise ship company in federal court in Florida, but the jury decided in favor of Royal Caribbean.
Ross Klein, a professor of social work at the Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies cruise safety, says alcohol is responsible for at least 11% of falls from cruise ships.
"Cruises are seen as idyllic, safe, and secure, and of course, these views are reinforced by advertising and official statements," he said. He said that the public needs to be aware of the risks of going on a cruise, including the temptation to go outside and jump overboard.
How do ships keep people from going overboard?
By law, railings must be 42 inches high, Professor Klein said. He said there was an effort to raise the railing height by about a foot after Congress began considering legislation to increase ship security in 2005. Current standards, he said.
The railing height is designed to keep passengers safe along the ship's promenade, said Brian Salerno, senior vice president of maritime policy at CLIA.
"Most of the cases are either reckless actions or some kind of deliberate act," Salerno said. "People don't just inadvertently fall off the sides of ships."
Professor Klein said cruise ships could limit the risk of passengers falling overboard if they restricted alcohol consumption, raised railing heights, and installed technology to detect heavy objects falling off the boat.
Salerno said a 2010 law directed cruise ships to begin developing and installing such technology.
It took years to create a video surveillance system that was sensitive enough to detect a person falling overboard, alert sailors, and not be triggered by other objects such as flying seagulls. Some ships have already started installing such systems, Salerno said.
Bartenders on cruise ships are also trained to watch out for excessive drinking, said Robert Kritzmann, a partner at Clyde & Co., an international law firm in Miami that advises cruise lines.
"The general policy is the same as anywhere else: If someone gets excessively drunk, we stop service," he said.
"The only way to get overboard is to deliberately climb the safety fence," Carnival said.
"Cruise ships have safety barriers in all public areas that are regulated by U.S. Coast Guard standards to prevent guests from falling," the company said in a statement, adding that the Coast Guard and Grimes found Thanks to the crew. "Guests are not allowed to climb the rails."
A spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about the incident or Carnival's safety protocols.
What happens if the crew learns that a person has gone overboard?
Kritzmann said cruise ships have clear rules about what to do if someone goes overboard.
When crew members learn that a person has gone overboard, they immediately contact the Coast Guard to stop and turn the ship to search for the missing passengers. Small, fast boats are often dispatched from the ship to search for the individual, Kritzmann said.
The circumstances surrounding the recent Carnival Valor fall, including the exact time Mr. Grimes went overboard, remain unclear. The Coast Guard said it was investigating the incident.
Gross said the Coast Guard launched a 45-foot patrol boat, helicopter, and tracker to search for him after learning about the missing passenger. The Coast Guard is about the size of Massachusetts. He set up a search area of more than 7,000 square nautical miles and immediately alerted sailors around the Gulf of Mexico to look for the man.
The bulk carrier Crinis found Mr. Grimes about 20 miles south of the Southwest Pass, a channel at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Lt. Gross said he called the man's mother and stepfather to tell them he had been found.
I heard them cheering and crying when I told them my son was stable and being treated in a hospital in New Orleans.
White, who lives in Hampton, Virginia, and runs an anti-bullying group, said she was relieved when the ship announced that Grimes had been found alive.
"It's none other than God that he survived," she said.