US rescuers find one body in ‘dire’ search for 39 people missing off Florida | Florida

Date: 2022-01-26T21:30:26.000Z

Location: www.theguardian.com

The US Coast Guard was battling ocean currents and time on Wednesday after rescue teams found one body while a frantic search for 38 other people reported missing continued, after a boat capsized in the Atlantic between the Bahamas and Florida.

The accident killed at least one person and left a single known survivor, while US authorities launched a criminal investigation into suspected human smuggling.

Coast Guard Capt Jo-Ann Burdian said the survivor had told rescuers that the boat had capsized Saturday evening shortly after sailing from the Bahamas into a storm.

The Coast Guard was alerted on Tuesday morning after the crew of a merchant vessel spotted the man sitting alone on the overturned hull of the 25ft boat.

He was taken to a hospital with symptoms of dehydration and sun exposure and turned over to US Department of Homeland Security officials, who said he was “conscious and lucid”.

Burdian said the mission of finding other migrants alive was urgent.

“With every moment that passes, it becomes much more dire and more unlikely” that survivors would be found, she told a news conference.

Crews searched around the clock, extrapolating from where the wreck was spotted about 40 miles off Fort Pierce, Florida.

By Wednesday morning, crews on at least four ships and five aircraft had scanned a vast area about the size of New Jersey, Burdian said.

They planned to keep searching throughout the day and then re-evaluate.

“We are using every piece of information we can to make sure we are exhausting our search efforts,” Burdian said. “But we can’t search for ever.”

The weather forecast through Thursday calls for scattered rain and thunderstorms in the search area, with swells cresting at 2-3ft and winds blowing at 12-15mph.

Anthony Salisbury, homeland security special agent in charge of the Miami office, said the investigation effort included US agents in the Bahamas.

“You’re dealing with criminal organizations that have no value for human life or safety. It’s really victimizing the migrants. It’s just about the money,” he said.

Agents have interviewed the survivor, but Salisbury would not identify the man or his nationality, nor reveal the nationalities of any others believed to have been on the vessel.

The rescued man had told the Coast Guard he was part of a group of 40 people who left Bimini in the Bahamas, Burdian said. The man said the boat had capsized shortly thereafter, and no one aboard was wearing a life jacket, she added.

The assumed asylum seekers are feared dead en route from the Bahamas, about 300 miles from the US coast.

The US Coast Guard patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas, along routes often used by migrants trying to reach the US, and it has stopped and repatriated those found navigating US waters.

Most of the asylum seekers attempting to reach Florida by sea come from Haiti and Cuba. Last October, about 1,194 migrants, mainly men who were trying to reach Miami in the US state of Florida, were repatriated to Haiti, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

They had come ashore after their boat ran out of fuel and experienced engine problems in the south of Cuba, where they were arrested by the authorities.

On Sunday, the Coast Guard tweeted: “Crews continue to patrol the waters around Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, to ensure the safety of life at sea.’’

“Navigating the Florida straits, Windward and Mona Passages, in overloaded and less than seaworthy vessels, is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard said in a statement last weekend.

According to the United Nations, “the number of Haitians who have tried to migrate via unofficial channels to neighbouring countries by boat to seek what they believe will be a better life increased dramatically in 2021, driven by economic hardship, insecurity and a recent earthquake”.

The IOM said many of them sell their possessions or borrow money from loan sharks with high repayment charges to pay for the cost of the crossing.

Last Friday, the Coast Guard found 88 Haitians in an overloaded sail freighter, west of Great Inagua, in the Bahamas.

The Haitian coast guard intercepted at least 224 migrants at sea in 2020, and 605 in 2021, while the US Coast Guard said it had intercepted at least 159 Haitian nationals so far this year.

Last July, the US Coast Guard rescued 13 people, after their boat capsized off of Key West, Florida, as Tropical Storm Elsa approached. The survivors said they had left Cuba with 22 people on board. Nine went missing in the water.