NEW YORK: Rescue crews searched waters off Florida’s Atlantic shore yesterday for 39 people reported missing by a survivor found clinging to a boat that capsized in what the US Coast Guard called a suspected human smuggling operation gone awry.
The survivor told authorities after his rescue that he had left the Bahamas’ Bimini islands, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Miami, in a boat with 39 other people on Saturday night, the Coast Guard said in a statement posted on Twitter.
According to the survivor, the group’s vessel capsized when it hit rough weather about 45 miles (72.4 km) east of Fort Pierce Inlet, off Florida’s Atlantic coast about midway between Miami and Cape Canaveral, but no one was wearing a life jacket, the Coast Guard said.
A good Samaritan found the man perched on the overturned hull of the boat yesterday morning and rescued him before reporting the incident to the Coast Guard, which dispatched multiple cutter vessels and aircraft to search the area.
“This is a suspected human smuggling venture,” the Coast Guard said in its statement. The nationality of those who were aboard was not mentioned.
Incidents of overturned or interdicted vessels crowded with people, many of them Haitians or Cubans seeking to reach the United States, are not uncommon in the waters off Florida.
The Coast Guard has intercepted 127 Cuban migrants trying to make the relatively narrow ocean crossing to Florida since October of 2021, in addition to nearly 7,400 Cubans picked up at sea during the previous five years, according to the agency.
Vessel crossings of Haitian migrants have likewise grown more frequent as economic dislocation and gang-related kidnappings have spiked on that poverty-wracked Caribbean island nation.