Two People Survive Fall From Cruise Ship

The distress call came around 2:30 a.m.: A man and a woman had fallen over the balcony of a cabin on the cruise ship Grand Princess, and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Coast Guard Lt. Sean O'Brien is used to working in challenging conditions. He pilots helicopter rescue missions under sometimes difficult conditions, searching the gulf for people from boats that have sunk, and evacuating injured workers from offshore oil platforms.

When he checked the weather early Sunday morning after getting the call from the Grand Princess cruise ship, he knew it would be a particularly challenging rescue.

"The call said a 20-year-old male and a 20-year-old female fell off a balcony of the Grand Princess cruise ship," he said. "We calculated their distance, and they were about 180 miles off the coast of Texas. Just on the edge of our range."

The ship, which was just hours into a seven-day cruise, had left Galveston, Texas, late Saturday afternoon, for a tour of the Caribbean.

The odds of a successful rescue were slim. Weather was quite bad, according to O'Brien.

"It was dark. It was foggy and we had very low visibility. Once we got offshore, there was no visibility. At one point it looked like we would have to turn back, but the crew decided we would go another 40 or 50 miles, and then it started to clear up," he said.

The Coast Guard rescue helicopter stopped on a nearby oil drilling platform to refuel, which gave it the range needed to proceed to the Grand Princess.

Once the helicopter crew reached the rescue site, they discovered the crew of the Grand Princess had lowered lifeboats into the water, and were searching for the couple. They had already found the woman, and were looking for her companion.

The Coast Guard helicopter dropped down to about 50 feet above the water, and the crew started scanning the gulf with a searchlight.

"Our rescue swimmer saw the man splashing. He was watching his head go up and down, so we spotlighted him, and kept spotlighting him, and talked one of the lifeboats from the cruise ship into location, where they were able to pull him out of the water and take him back to the cruise ship," O'Brien said.

The man had been in the water for at least four hours, but was in good condition, according to Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruise Lines.

No one is saying yet just how the couple fell off the balcony; the ship hasn't docked yet. The Grand Princess is scheduled to dock in Mexico early this week, where the rescued couple will be given the choice of continuing on the cruise, or disembarking in Cozumel.

O'Brien is hoping for a quiet week, but the Coast Guard station at Ellington Air Force Base responds to an average of 200 rescue calls a year.

"It's a good feeling, a little bit like an adrenaline rush. The crew has great job satisfaction. We get to fly. We get to run missions like this, and this one had a happy ending."

Rich McHugh contributed to this report.