One body has been recovered as a search continued Wednesday morning for 38 other passengers believed to have been on a human-smuggling boat that capsized in the northern Straits of Florida, officials said.
During a news conference Wednesday morning, a U.S. Coast Guard official said search and rescue crews are in a race against time to find any survivors.
"It is dire. The longer they remain in the water without food, without water, exposed to the marine environment, the sun, the sea conditions, every moment that passes it becomes much more dire and unlikely that anyone could survive in those conditions," said Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of the Sector Miami Coast Guard.
The 25-foot capsized boat was discovered around 8 a.m. on Tuesday roughly 40 miles east of Florida's Fort Pierce Inlet when a commercial tug-in barge operator radioed in that one survivor was found clinging to the hull of the overturned vessel.
"We often rely on sometimes heroic acts of good Samaritans operating in the marine environment and this case is no exception," Burdian said. "We’re deeply grateful that the mariner located the survivor in this case and saved his life and called us so that we could continue to search for survivors."
Burdian said the survivor was in a hospital in stable condition on Wednesday and was being interviewed by federal Homeland Security investigators. The survivor said a total of 40 people were aboard the boat when it flipped over in treacherous sea conditions after launching from Bimini Island in the Bahamas on Saturday evening, Burdian said.
"The survivor was not wearing a life jacket and reported that no one else on board was wearing a life jacket," Burdian said.
Joshua Nelson, operations manager for the tug-in barge dubbed the "Signet Intruder" that rescued the man, said the survivor told the crew that his sister was on the boat and among those unaccounted for. Nelson, who was not on the barge owned by Signet Maritime Corp. when the rescue was made, told ABC News that his crew reported that the man was dehydrated and "was very malnourished and very distraught."
"We’ve had other vessels and other crew members in some of our other divisions that have encountered this before," Nelson said. "Nothing really prepares (you) in regards to this, but they felt relieved that they were able to get him on board."
Burdian said the Coast Guard along with federal, state and local partners immediately initiated a search involving multiple Coast Guard cutters and Navy aircraft.
"We did recover a deceased body, who will be transferred to shore today in Fort Pierce and we continue to search for other survivors," Burdian said.
She said crews have already searched an area of about 7,500 nautical miles or about the size of New Jersey.
Burdian said aircraft crews have reported seeing some debris fields with items consistent with the number of people believed to have been on board the vessel.
"We do suspect that this is a case of human smuggling," Burdian said. "This event occurred in a normal route for human smuggling from the Bahamas into the southeast U.S."
She said the waters in the Florida straits can be quite treacherous.
"In cases like this, small vessels, overloaded, inexperienced operators at night in bad weather is incredibly dangerous," Burdian said.
Burdian would not comment on the origins or nationalities of the people believed to have been on the vessel.
"My focus remains on search and rescue," Burdian said.
She said the search will continue throughout Wednesday, but cautioned, "the search can't go on forever" and that the rescue operation will be re-evaluated on a daily basis.
"Without life jackets, anyone is disadvantaged to survive in the water," Burdian said. "Life jackets save lives."