'It never felt like it was real': C.B.S. woman recounts cruise ship rescue of Cuban refugees

A Conception Bay South woman shares her experience aboard a cruise ship that rescued a group of Cuban refugees from a man-made raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Melissa Colbourne was on cruise to Grand Cayman Island and Cozumel when 17 people were rescued from a raft

Cruise Rescue 2:01

A woman from Conception Bay South, N.L., who was aboard a cruise ship that rescued a group of Cuban refugees from a raft in the Atlantic Ocean says what had been a relaxing vacation quickly turned into a dramatic recovery mission.

Melissa Colbourne was on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship travelling between Grand Cayman Island and Cozumel, Mexico, when a passenger spotted an object floating in the ocean around 10:30 p.m on Jan. 14

After verifying there was something in the water, Colbourne said the captain announced the vessel would be turning around to try to locate the object.

"It was really scary at that time because we didn't know what was going on or what may be in the water," she said.

As the ship got closer, Colbourne said she was shocked to see what appeared to be a group of people floating on a man-made raft.

"It appeared that it was made of two canoes, bamboo, different pieces of wood, rope and it was just put all together and made."

Seventeen people were rescued from the man-made raft after the Norwegian Cruise Line ship turned around in an attempt to locate an unknown object. (Submitted by Melissa Colbourne)

She said the captain and crew quickly attempted to rescue those on board.

"The captain announced overhead that there was 17 Cuban refugees on this little man-made raft and they were floating towards us," said Colbourne.

"At that point, there's 4,000 people out on deck of this cruise ship and we're all watching this recovery mission."

As the ship got closer to the raft, the captain turned off the ship's engines and drifted slowly toward the refugees.

Once they were close enough, the passengers on the raft were helped to safety.

"We could hear them shouting, and they were thanking us and yelling out, 'Thank you,' and they were shouting 'Cuba.' They were waving their arms in the air," said Colbourne.

Refugees were on raft for 3 weeks

The 15 men and two women from Cuba were rescued from the raft.

"The captain announced overhead once they were onboard that the Cuban raft left Cuba on Dec. 24," said Colbourne.

"They were floating in the ocean for three weeks trying to get away from their country."

Colbourne said she was shocked at the risk the refugees took in boarding the raft, and was unsure how they managed to survive such a long journey.

It'd have to be an awful, terrible situation for you to have to leave your country, flee your country, to get away.- Melissa Colbourne

"You could see these little white packs in the back of the boat. We're assuming it was their food and water, and the word was that they were in relatively good condition," she said. 

"It'd have to be an awful, terrible situation for you to have to leave your country, flee your country, to get away." 

She said the rescued passengers were detained below decks and handed over to Mexican authorities when the ship reached Cozumel. 

"There was a pregnant lady onboard [the raft], so there was an ambulance that came down the [pier] first.

"Later in the day, immigration came… and got [the rest of] them then."

Rescue felt like a movie

Melissa Colbourne, a Canadian aboard the cruise ship, says witnessing the rescue was an eye-opening experience.

Colbourne said it was an eye-opening experience that helped her understand the privileges Canadians enjoy and see the desperation of poverty up close.

"When you see it with your own eyes, it actually makes it so much more real."

A week later, Colbourne says the experience was surreal.

"You hear about it on the news all the time and on TV, but to witness it with your own eyes was an amazing experience," she said.

"It felt like you were in the movies. It never felt like it was real."