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'Christmas miracle': Cruise ship rescues fishermen stranded for weeks

Last-minute course change put Miami-based ship into mariners' path

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MIAMI – A Miami-based cruise ship rescued two Costa Rican fishermen who were stranded at sea for almost a month.

The Empress of the Seas found the men around 7 p.m. Thursday between Jamaica and Grand Cayman, according to James Van Fleet, chief meteorologist for Royal Caribbean International. 

Van Fleet said the men fell asleep while they waited for their nets to soak on Dec. 1 near Porto Limon, Costa Rica, but the winds picked up while they were sleeping and pulled them way off course. They ran out of gas trying to get back to shore.

With only seven days' worth of food and water, the fishermen conserved resources until help arrived.  But Van Fleet said the Empress of the Seas wasn't scheduled to be anywhere near the fishermen, describing the rescue as "pure luck, lining of the stars, God, whatever you choose to believe."

"It is truly an absolute miracle," Van Fleet said. "We were scheduled to be in Cienfuegos, Cuba, at that time." He said a storm forced the Empress of the Seas to alter course and put the vessel in the path of the fishermen.

Passengers watched the rescue unfold from the deck of the Empress of the Seas.

Christine Spadola, of Miami, was celebrating her first wedding anniversary on the cruise and witnessed the rescue from the deck of the ship. 

"You could see a tiny fishing boat floating amid large swells and what appeared to be a person holding a flashlight and making an SOS signal," Spadola said. "It was scary to watch. You would see the boat almost appear to capsize amid the large swells."

Spadola said that because of the weather conditions, it took almost three hours to get the men to safety.

"Everyone on board went crazy and was clapping. It was wonderful to see such care and concern," Spadola said. "It was a highlight and represented the best of humanity." 

One of the fishermen could not walk after he was rescued and was carried aboard. The ship's medical staff tended to the men before the crew took them to a hospital in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. By the time he reached Jamaica, the man who had been carried could walk again. 

"I don't know about you, but I've seen a Christmas miracle," Van Fleet said.