The Coast Guard on Wednesday morning found the body of one person believed to be among a group of 40 migrants whose vessel overturned between the Bahamas and Florida over the weekend.
A Coast Guard airplane crew spotted the person floating in the water — and a cutter crew retrieved the body off Fort Pierce, Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, sector commander for Miami, said during a news briefing Wednesday in Miami Beach.
The Coast Guard and U.S. Navy in addition to other federal, state and local agencies launched a massive air and sea search Tuesday after a commercial tugboat crew rescued a man sitting on the capsized hull of a 25-foot vessel about 40 miles east of Fort Pierce Inlet around 8 a.m.
The man, who is in stable condition, told the Coast Guard that he and the group left Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday. Their boat overturned in rough weather soon after they departed, Burdian said.
“Every moment that passes, it becomes much more dire and unlikely that people are going to survive this,” she added.
The incident is the latest in a spike of maritime migration to Florida that began over the past two years, mostly involving people trying to flee political and economic turmoil in Cuba and Haiti.
Burdian said the nationalities of the people on the boat were not yet known.
“There’s no indication of their nationalities, but we do know the boat departed from Bimini,” she said.
Homeland Security Investigations is looking into the human smuggling aspect of the case. HSI Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury declined to disclose the migrants’ nationalities, saying the incident is part of an ongoing investigation.
“It’s all very raw right now,” Salisbury said.
However, continuing the message of the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies enforcing immigration law have been sending out, Salisbury said the incident should serve as a warning to potential migrants not to risk their lives trying to reach the United States by sea.
And he particularly urged people not to pay smugglers, who he said “have zero regard for human life.”
Burdian said she could not say the exact type of boat the man was found clinging to. By the time the Coast Guard arrived at the scene, a substantial amount of the vessel was underwater, she said. It was marked as a hazard to navigation and, as of Wednesday, was still floating in the ocean.
It’s not clear how long the search will continue, Burdian said.
Coast Guard aircrews are focusing on several debris fields they have spotted since Tuesday.
“The aircraft has reported items in the debris field to be consistent with a number of people being on the vessel,” Burdian said. “And, we are focusing our search efforts under the assumption that there were 39 other people who went into the water.”
The rescued man said neither he nor the others on the boat were wearing life jackets, which Burdian said decreases their chance of survival.
“Life jackets save lives no matter what the circumstances,” she said.
So far, Coast Guard and other agencies have searched about 7,500 nautical miles, about the area of the state of New Jersey, Burdian said.
The crew that rescued the man Monday works on a 120-foot tugboat that routinely tows a barge from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, said Joshua Nelson, operations manager of the company that owns the boat, Signet Maritime Corp.
“It was a big group effort to render aid, bring him on the boat and get him to the Coast Guard,” Nelson said.
Burdian, the Coast Guard commander, praised the captain and his crew.
“We’re deeply grateful that the mariner located the survivor in this case, and saved his life,” she said.
When they saw the man in the water, the tug was on its way back from Puerto Rico. The crew reported the man spoke Spanish and was overheard saying he was from Colombia, Nelson said.
Captaining the boat was Ryan Elwin Sr., who had a crew of seven people that day, according to Nelson. They said the man they pulled from the water was disoriented and dehydrated when they got him aboard. They gave him water, electrolytes and food.
“Within three minutes the boat was underway to transfer him to the Coast Guard,” Nelson said.
Salisbury of HSI said anyone with information about the boat or the people aboard the vessel — including anyone who believes a loved one may have been on board — should call Homeland Security Investigations’ tip line at 866-347-2423.