(CNN) — In the early hours after the Carnival Valor set sail from New Orleans on Thanksgiving eve, a brother and sister headed for the one place for a party scene: the bar.
As expected, the man at one point walked away to use the bathroom.
But he didn’t come back.
He was not in his cabin.
The 28-year-old had simply disappeared.
What happened next has stunned at least one seasoned sailor who, with hours of hindsight, declared that the astonishing result was unlike anything he had ever witnessed, and nothing short of “one of those Thanksgiving miracles.”
An air and sea search begins
His sister said it was around 11 p.m. when his brother left, Carnival spokesman Matt Lupoli told CNN in a statement Thursday.
At noon the next day, Thanksgiving, she reported him missing, according to the statement. Authorities have not identified either man.
Announcements rang out on the ship for the missing passenger to check in with guest services, passenger Mike Anderson told CNN on Thursday, and people “noticed security starting to search the ship with a photo of the missing (passenger) on their phones.”
Around 2 p.m., a final registration request was issued, it said.
The passengers were told their arrival time at their port of call in Cozumel, Mexico, would be delayed, Anderson said. His wife, Whitney Gaines, said one of the ship’s pools was drained, but the couple said no official announcement has yet been made about what happened.
The ship, Anderson pointed out, then turned around.
“The Carnival Valor retraced its route to support search and rescue,” Lupoli explained.
Then, around 2:30 p.m., the Coast Guard received a call from the ship, Coast Guard Lt. Phillip VanderWeit said in a statement.
A cruise passenger was missing.
Soon, a search for the man began by several crews, by air and by sea, he said.
An area of more than 320 kilometers and a critical mission
An alert was sent out to all sailors in the Gulf, and the Coast Guard “launched all available resources,” USCG search and rescue coordinator Lt. Seth Gross told CNN Friday morning.
That included a small boat from Venice, Florida, a New Orleans-based helicopter and planes from Clearwater, Florida and Mobile, Alabama, he said.
The search stretched more than 200 miles into the gulf, Gross said, adding that the water temperature there Thursday night was just above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and somewhat cooler in the Mississippi River.
Given the time difference between the last time the man was seen and when the Coast Guard was alerted, “we knew that communication with sailors in the Gulf of Mexico was going to be critical,” Gross said.
The mission intensified.
About 20 miles south of Southwest Pass, Louisiana, the crew of the bulk carrier CRINIS was monitoring the water, the Coast Guard said in a news release Friday.
Then, around 8:25 p.m., they saw something.
A case without comparison
It was the man.
The crew of a New Orleans Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter went to the scene and “loaded the man into the helicopter,” VanderWeit said.
He was alive, USCG Petty Officer Ryan Graves said.
“He was able to identify his name, confirmed that he was the individual who went overboard,” Gross told CNN’s Boris Sánchez on Friday afternoon. “He was showing signs of hypothermia, shock, dehydration,” but he could walk and communicate.
He “didn’t really give a clear indication as to why he went overboard or at what time specifically,” he added.
“The fact that he was able to stay afloat and on the surface of the water for such a long period of time is something that cannot be taken for granted and certainly something that will stay with me forever,” Gross said.
Rescuers have not been able to determine exactly how long he was in the water, Gross told “CNN This Morning,” but it could have been more than 15 hours.
If it was that long, it’s “the longest I’ve ever heard of, and just one of those Thanksgiving miracles,” he said.
According to Gross, in his 17-year career, “this case is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed.” “I think it overturns the norm, the normality, and shows that the will to live is something that has to be taken into account in all search and rescue cases.”
“If it were not for the alert crew aboard the CRINIS motor vessel, this case could have had a much more difficult ending,” he said in the press release. “It took a total team effort from Coast Guard watchmen, response teams and our professional maritime partners operating in the Gulf of Mexico to locate the missing person and bring them to safety.”
The rescued man was transferred to waiting emergency medical personnel at the New Orleans Lakefront airport, Graves said.
He is being evaluated at a hospital, Gross said, and the Coast Guard reported him in stable condition as of Friday morning.
Back aboard the Carnival Valor, an announcement Thursday night over the public address system informed guests that there had been a man overboard incident, Anderson said.
The ship, freed from the search, sailed back to Cozumel, Anderson recalled.
CNN’s Melissa Alonso, Dave Alsup, Amanda Jackson, Sara Smart, Jose Lesh and Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.