By Brian Ellsworth and Steve Gorman
MIAMI -Rescue crews searched late into the night on Tuesday for 39 people reported missing in the Atlantic off Florida by a man found clinging to a boat that capsized in what the U.S. Coast Guard called a suspected human smuggling attempt gone awry.
The survivor told authorities 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 online.
According to the survivor, the group’s vessel capsized on Sunday morning 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.
The accident coincided with a small-craft advisory posted in that area, with steady winds clocked at up to 23 miles (37 km) per hour and 9-foot (3-meter) seas, according to the Coast Guard.
A good Samaritan found the man perched on the mostly submerged hull of the overturned boat on Tuesday morning and rescued him before alerting the Coast Guard, which dispatched rescue vessels and aircraft to look for more victims.
The survivor was taken to hospital for treatment of dehydration and sun exposure.
Through Tuesday, Coast Guard cutter crews, helicopter teams, search planes and a U.S. Navy air crew criss-crossed an area spanning more than 1,300 square miles (3,367 square km), about the size of Rhode Island, between Bimini and Fort Pierce Inlet, the statement said.
“Air and surface crews will continue searching throughout the night,” the Coast Guard’s Miami-based southeastern district office said on Twitter late on Tuesday.
The agency said in an earlier Twitter message that the incident was under investigation as “a suspected human smuggling venture.” However, the nationalities of those who were aboard the vessel has yet to be determined, a Coast Guard spokesperson, Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, said.
It came on the heels of another ill-fated migrant crossing attempt that ended with 32 people rescued from a capsized vessel last Friday, west of Bimini, which has become frequent transit point for sea-going smugglers, Hernandez said.
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.
In May of 2021, 12 Cuban migrants perished and eight were rescued after their boat flipped over off Key West, Florida.
At least 557 Cuban migrants in all have been picked up at sea by the Coast Guard since October, in addition to nearly 7,400 Cubans interdicted during the previous five years, according to the agency.
Vessel crossings of Haitian migrants have likewise grown more frequent as the Caribbean island nation deals with economic and political crises, as well as gang-related kidnappings. The Coast Guard said it had intercepted at least 159 Haitian nationals this fiscal year.
Last week, 90 people were repatriated to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, following rescue and interdiction of three illegal voyages across the Mona Passage near Puerto Rico.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Miami; Writing and additonal reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio and Aurora Ellis)