image: rescue
Melinda Lopez drinks water after being rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
updated 10/10/2003 1:24:56 PM ET 2003-10-10T17:24:56

A Texas woman who describes herself as a “pretty good swimmer” battled high waves, a big fish and her own mounting terror for 13 hours in the Gulf of Mexico after falling off a shrimp boat.

BUT MELINDA LOPEZ said the worst moment came when a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter arrived at the unmanned oil platform that she reached at the end of her overnight ordeal. “I was afraid they were going to leave me,” she told the Houston Chronicle Thursday from her mother’s home in Palacios, Texas. “I got so scared I hyperventilated.”

Lopez, 32, said she fell off the 65-foot shrimp boat Ike and Zack about 4 p.m. Tuesday as she attempted to climb onto a shelflike structure at the boat’s stern that holds nets. She said she shouted loudly after resurfacing in the water approximately 70 miles of Galveston, but the boat’s captain, Alfred Rocha, and two other crew members were below deck and didn’t hear her.

With no life preserver and wearing only shorts and a light shirt, Lopez began swimming for her life.

“The water was rough,” she told the Chronicle. “The waves were coming over my head.”

In addition to fighting the high waves through the long night, she had to fend off a large fish that began hitting her hard on the shoulder.

“I think he was just trying to see what I was,” Lopez told the newspaper. “I knocked him away and after about 15 minutes he went away.”

She eventually heard a bell on the offshore oil platform and began swimming in that direction. She reached the platform as dawn was breaking.

She found blankets, bottled water, potato chips and beef jerky in a storeroom on the platform, but no communications gear or flare gun that would enable her to get help. As hours passed, she became increasingly desperate as she watched boats passing in the distance.

Lopez finally found a can of spray paint and wrote “SOS” on the platform’s helipad and managed to activate an alarm system on the platform.

She was plucked off the structure’s deck early Wednesday by a Coast Guard helicopter, 27 hours after she fell into the water, and flown to the University of Texas medical center in Galveston.

Throughout her ordeal, Lopez told the Chronicle that one thing remained on her mind.

“I just wanted my mom,” she said. “A mom just knows how to hold you.”

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