PALACIOS, Texas -- Cold, frightened, and desperate after 13 hours in the choppy Gulf of Mexico, Melinda Lopez refused to give up.
After falling overboard Tuesday from the shrimp boat where she worked, Lopez swam and floated until she reached safety at an oil platform, spray-painted a distress signal, and managed to activate an alarm system to summon help.
"I just had to stay strong; I didn't want to go like that," the 32-year-old Lopez was quoted as saying in yesterday's editions of The Victoria Advocate.
"I didn't want to be eaten by fishes. I was really scared."
Lopez's ordeal began 70 miles off Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico, where she was climbing around on the 76-foot shrimper, known as Ike and Zack, to find a spot to read. She slipped and fell in the water without a life jacket.
Neither the boat's three-man crew nor those of other boats that floated past heard her cries.
"The water was rough," she was quoted as saying in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle, adding that she was bumped by large fish. "The waves were coming over my head."
Lopez said she swam all night, following a distant sound and finally reaching a foghorn on the offshore rig about daybreak Wednesday.
There, she found a moldy loaf of bread, other food and water, and some black and white paint.
She painted an SOS sign on the platform, made a balloon from a black trash bag, and spray-painted it with another plea for help. She also was able to trigger an alarm system on the platform, which activated sirens and lights.
Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine said a jet pilot saw the SOS on the oil platform Wednesday evening.
After being rescued by a helicopter crew, Lopez was "cold, shaking, dehydrated and in a slight state of shock, but stable," Wine said. She was transferred to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Lopez's mother had cried and prayed as rescuers searched for her daughter.
"As long as she's my daughter, she'll never go to sea again," said Janie Lopez, of Palacios.
Her daughter said, "I don't want to even get in the water."