MIAMI (NewsNation) — One survivor and the body of another passenger have been recovered as searchers continue to seek dozens of missing people in Florida waters after a vessel capsized in what is likely a “case of human smuggling.”
According to the survivor rescued, there were 40 on board when the vessel capsized due to weather shortly after leaving Bimini in the Bahamas. No one was wearing life jackets. The Coast Guard did not release race, age or gender of any of the missing people or the fatality, citing the ongoing investigation.
At about 8 a.m. Tuesday, a mariner on a commercial tug and barge heading to Jacksonville, Florida, rescued a man sitting on top of a sinking 25-foot vessel about 45 miles east of the Fort Pierce Inlet, the maritime security agency reported on Twitter.
“We often rely on sometimes heroic acts of good Samaritans operating in the marine environment and this case is no exception,” said Sector Miami Commander Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian at a press conference Wednesday morning.
The Coast Guard and Navy began a marine and aerial search of an area of 7,500 nautical miles, roughly the size of New Jersey. Searchers, who worked through the night, are targeting debris fields to look for survivors, Burdain said. The people have likely been in the water since Monday.
The Department of Homeland Security is leading the investigation into the human smugglers. Burdian did not confirm whether the people on board were migrants, but said the boat capsized on a common smuggling route from the Bahamas into the U.S.
“The decision to take to the sea is a complicated one,” Burdain said. “The waters in Florida’s northern straits can be quite treacherous, and … in cases like this, small vessels, overloaded, inexperienced operators at night and in bad weather, it’s incredibly dangerous.”
A cold front late Saturday brought rough weather to the Bimini area. Tommy Sewell, a local bonefishing guide, said there were 20-mph winds and fierce squalls of rain on Sunday into Monday.
Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a steppingstone 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.
The Coast Guard patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas.
For the most part, the migrants 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.
On Friday, the Coast Guard found 88 Haitians in an overloaded sail freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahamas. Last July, the Coast Guard rescued 13 people after their boat capsized off Key West as Tropical Storm Elsa approached.
The survivors said they had left Cuba with 22 people aboard. Nine went missing in the water.