On Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, US Coast Guard rescuers saved a naked man waving a sock in the Gulf of Mexico, about 20 nautical miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River. The unnamed swimmer had fallen from the deck of the Carnival Valor liner. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
It’s not every day that US Coast Guard Avionics Electrical Technician 2nd Class Jacob Scarborough spots a drowning man, naked and waving a sock over his head.
It was 8:25 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 24, as the MH-60T Jayhawk rescue helicopter from Air Station New Orleans hovered about 20 nautical miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle told Coffee or Die Magazine he could tell from the heat signature captured by the helicopter’s electro-optical infrared sensor that they’d found an exhausted man.
He’d wave his arm at the chopper, then disappear under the waves for a few seconds before bobbing up again. He was the 28-year-old man who’d gone overboard the Caribbean Sea-bound Carnival Valor cruise liner about an hour before midnight on Nov. 23.
Cruise ships Carnival Valor, left, and Aurora anchored in the English Channel off the Dorset coast as the cruise industry lurched to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic on August 18, 2020 in Weymouth, England. Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images.
Carnival Cruise Line staffers scanned surveillance footage that appeared to show the man falling off the ship, and then contacted Coast Guard watchstanders on Thanksgiving Day to report his possible disappearance.
Emergency calls from cruise ships aren’t unique. In the Coast Guard’s New Orleans-based District 8, it’s about one dispatch per month, but those are usually medical evacuations off the deck of a liner.
“This one's unique because one way or another the patient ended up in the water,” Hoefle told Coffee or Die.
So watchstanders scrambled Hoefle and his aircrew to search for the missing man. Joining them was a 45-foot response boat-medium crew from the Louisiana port of Venice, and an HC-144B Ocean Sentry reconnaissance plane from Mobile, Alabama.
US Coast Guard rescuers saved a cruise ship passenger from the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 20 nautical miles offshore Louisiana, on Nov. 24, 2022. The man was responsive when rescued and last reported in stable condition. Screengrab from US Coast Guard footage by Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans.
The teams began following search patterns designed to find the man before he drowned, but it was a very wide map.
“It was really big, which told us the boat has no idea where this guy is,” Hoefle said. “The search area was the size of Rhode Island.”
The helicopter’s pilots, Lt. Andrew Campbell and Lt. Travis Rhea, donned their night vision goggles, staring down at the waves, but they had one important clue guiding them to where they thought the man overboard might be.
Anyone who falls into the water near the Mississippi Delta is going to be pushed by the surge of the river deeper into the Gulf of Mexico.
So they knew to concentrate their hunt for the man farther out to sea.
An Air Station New Orleans MH-65D Dolphin helicopter crew conducts a hoist of a 23-year-old man aboard the cruise ship, Carnival Valor, on October 8, 2019, who fell approximately five meters. A passenger from Carnival Valor was rescued Nov. 24, 2022, when he went overboard and trod water for close to 20 hours. Screengrab from US Coast Guard video.
And they had another key clue.
At 8:25 p.m. on Thanksgiving, the crew of the Liberian-flagged bulk carrier Crinis contacted watchstanders in New Orleans to report what they thought might be a person in the water.
They’d sent out a small boat team to try to retrieve the swimmer, but they struggled in the waves to reach him.
Campbell and Rhea used software designed to shoot a line of bearing to ships in distress to pinpoint where the transmission originated, and then flew toward it.
They figured that if they followed the wake of the bulk carrier, they’d find their man.
US Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans Avionics Electrical Technician 2nd Class Jacob Scarborough hoists a naked man missing from a cruise ship Nov. 24, 2022, in South Pass, Lousiana, as Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle swims in the Gulf below. Screengrab from US Coast Guard video.
And then Scarborough saw him.
The aircrew lowered Hoefle into the sea, and the elite rescue swimmer splashed to the man. He extended a rescue sling that doubles as a flotation device.
To Hoefle, he’d arrived just in time.
“I handed him that rescue device and he gripped it as if that was the last thing he could do in life and he just collapsed into it,” Hoefle said. “I try not to be dramatic in saying this, but I think that he had 30 seconds of fight left in him and he was a goner.”
US Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, greets an Angel of the Battlefield award recipient, US Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Richard Hoefle, during the 2018 Armed Services YMCA Angels of the Battlefield Awards Gala in Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 2, 2018. Hoefle saved the life of a critically injured mariner while serving as the duty rescue swimming aboard a Coast Guard helicopter, swimming through heavy seas to hoist himself up nearly three meters onto the damaged vessel. He then treated the severely injured crew member with improvised tools while waiting nearly two hours for the rescue helicopter to return. US Army photo.
Down came a rescue basket, and Hoefle and Scarborough hoisted the man into the helicopter, where the rescue swimmer swaddled him in warming blankets and urged him to take tiny sips of water to rinse out the ocean.
His muscles were involuntarily twitching as Hoefle tried to get a pulse, so the rescue swimmer estimated the man had been treading water for up to 20 hours.
The Coasties transferred him to emergency responders at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. Coast Guard officials reported that he was hospitalized in stable condition.
“This was an exceptionally rewarding case because of the timing of it,” Hoefle said. “If we had been 30 seconds later, I honestly believe that he would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. He would not have been recovered.”
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Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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