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Steelers, Pittsburgh celebs encounter suspected Cuban defectors on cruise

| Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, 4:21 p.m.
Dan Speicher | For the Tribune-Review
A small, crowded watercraft transporting 16 suspected Cuban defectors floats near a Pittsburgh celebrities cruise ship Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dan Speicher | For the Tribune-Review
A small, crowded watercraft transporting 16 suspected Cuban defectors floats near a Pittsburgh celebrities cruise ship Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dan Speicher | For the Tribune-Review
Carnival Cruise employees head away from a small, crowded watercraft transporting 16 suspected Cuban defectors Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in the Gulf of Mexico.

A unique cruise featuring Pittsburgh celebrities made an unusual discovery Saturday morning in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Carnival Cruise Lines ship, whose passengers included former Steelers and Penguins players, picked up 16 suspected Cuban migrants — 15 male, one female — who were aboard a crowded and crude floating watercraft. The discovery happened at 7 a.m. about 50 miles north of Cuba after the ship left Key West, Fla., en route to Cozumel, Mexico, said Carnival spokeswoman Aly Bello-Cabreriza.

Bello-Cabreriza said the 16 were rescued “from a vessel in distress,” and that the Carnival Sensation ship resumed its voyage to Mexico, where it arrived Saturday afternoon.

The story gained national attention when a pair of photos were posted to the Instagram account of veteran Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

“We just stopped for this boat with 16 people in the middle of the ocean. Waiting for coast guard now,” read the description for a photo of the boat and a motorized rescue raft that was approaching it.

Harrison's other posting was a close-up of the rectangular boat, which was about 150 square feet and appeared to be made of various objects held together by rope, straps, cables and even tape. A makeshift white sail stood less than 20 feet high in the middle of the boat, which was protected only by rudimentary railings on two sides.

“At first I thought, ‘What the heck is going on?' Then, you feel some fear because you don't know why they (the people on the raft) are there,” said former Steelers safety Mike Logan, another cruise passenger. “Once I realized that there were 16 people on the raft, I went directly into prayer mode, that everyone would make it safely onto the ship.”

Dan Speicher, a freelance photographer who works regularly for the Tribune-Review, also is on the cruise and posted photos of the boat to his Instagram account.

Reached by phone as the ship was disembarking in Mexico on Saturday afternoon, Speicher said crew members confirmed the rescued boat had 16 Cuban defectors on it.

“We're also hearing rumors that they were without food for four days and without water the past two, but I'm not sure how accurate they are,” Speicher said.

On docking in Cozumel, the passengers from the raft were handed over to Mexican immigration officials.

“The cruise line called us initially, and after we took and plotted the position realized that the vessel was in the Mexican region, we notified the Mexican (rescue coordination center),” said Lt. j.g. LaMarcus Walker of the U.S. Coast Guard's Miami rescue coordination center. “Mexican authorities took the report.”

Harrison was one of the featured guests on a Legends of Pittsburgh Cruise that departed Thursday from Miami and is scheduled to return to the United States on Monday.

Steelers reigning MVP Antonio Brown also is on the cruise, as well as a host of other former Steelers and former Pittsburgh professional athletes. More than a dozen Pittsburgh musicians were expected to be on the cruise, according to its website.

The cruise, which was open to the public, is taking place on an 855-foot ship. According to a Steelers release announcing it last year, it includes provincial perks such as Eat'n Park Smiley Cookies and Iron City beer. Entertainment was scheduled to include performances by Pittsburgh recording artist Joe Grushecky, The Clarks singer Scott Blasey and frequent Penguins anthem singer Jeff Jimerson.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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