Florida | The Coast Guard said this boat appeared to be involved in human smuggling. One person was rescued and 38 remain missing.
A body was found and the search was continuing Wednesday across a swath of the Atlantic Ocean the size of New Jersey for 38 people missing from a boat that capsized off the Florida coast.
The search began early Tuesday after a man clinging to a capsized boat was found by sailors on a passing barge, Coast Guard Captain Jo-Ann Burdian said Wednesday. The man, who was being treated for dehydration and sun exposure, told authorities the 25-foot boat that had sailed Saturday night from Bimini in the Bahamas, bound for Florida, had encountered severe weather.
Burdian said human smuggling was suspected. No one aboard had a life jacket, she said.
“It is dire the longer they remain in the water,” Burdian said. “Without food, without water, the sun, the sea conditions. … Every moment that passes it becomes much more dire and more unlikely that someone could survive.”
The sailors who found the survivor notified the Coast Guard, and a contingent of planes, helicopters and ships took up the search. Aircraft spotted what appeared to be a body and directed a cutter that collected the remains, Burdian said. Searchers were examining debris fields “consistent” with the tragedy, Burdian said.
She said finding the other migrants alive was the highest priority, but noted “we can’t search forever.”
The man was found clinging to the boat about 45 miles east of Fort Pierce, which is on the Atlantic Coast about 125 miles north of Miami, and about 100 miles north of Bimini. The man said the boat left the island of Bimini, about 50 miles east of Miami, Saturday night. Ferries routinely make the trip in about two hours in good weather. Officials said on Twitter that they are searching an area extending from Bimini to the Fort Pierce Inlet.
The Coast Guard said a small craft advisory had been issued as a severe cold front blew through the dangerous passage Saturday and Sunday, with winds up to 23 mph and swells up to 9 feet high. Tommy Sewell, a local bonefishing guide, said there were 20-mph winds and fierce squalls of rain on Sunday into Monday.
“Navigating the Florida straits, Windward and Mona Passages … is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard said in a statement last weekend.
The Coast Guard has not revealed the national origin of the missing migrants, but human smuggling in the region is a recurring problem. Friday, the Coast Guard found 88 Haitians in an overloaded sail freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahamas. Most making the trip are from Haiti and Cuba, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force has reported apprehending migrants from other parts of the world, including from Colombia and Ecuador earlier this month.
Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a stepping stone to reach Florida and the United States. They typically try to take advantage of breaks in the weather to make the crossing, but the vessels are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing.
There have been thousands of deaths over the years – and those are just the tragedies authorities learn about. The true toll will never be known.
The Coast Guard patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas.
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