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At least 1 dead, 38 missing after smuggling boat capsizes off Florida coast

Man rescued after 25-foot boat overturns 45 miles east of Fort Pierce Inlet
Commander Jo-Ann Burdian with the U.S. Coast Guard Miami Sector speaks at a news conference on Jan. 26, 2022.jpg
Posted at 8:19 AM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 18:17:02-05

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday at least one person is dead and dozens more are missing after a boat believed to be involved in a human smuggling operation capsized off the Florida coast.

Commander Jo-Ann Burdian with the U.S. Coast Guard Miami Sector said a body was found Tuesday, and an all-out search effort will continue until further notice for 38 missing boaters.

According to Burdian, a survivor who was rescued by a commercial mariner Tuesday morning said the 25-foot boat capsized shortly after leaving Bimini, Bahamas Saturday night due to severe weather.

Coast Guard officials said the mariner rescued the man 45 miles east of the Fort Pierce Inlet. He was taken to the hospital where he's now in stable condition.

"The survivor was not wearing a life jacket and reported that no one else on board was wearing a life jacket," Burdian said.

Man rescued from overturned boat off Fort Pierce, Jan. 25, 2022
One person was rescued after the overturned vessel was found off the coast of Fort Pierce on Jan. 25, 2022.

Federal, state, and local agencies have been using a variety of aircraft and boats to search for the remaining missing boaters. Burdian said, so far, crews have covered an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

"We did recover a deceased body. He'll be transferred ashore today in Fort Pierce. And we continue to search for other survivors," Burdian said.


Coast Guard provides update on search for 39 missing boaters

Burdian added that search conditions on Wednesday are "very good," and a debris field has been located that includes items consistent with a large number of people being on the vessel.

The Coast Guard said the boat was part of a human smuggling operation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is now investigating that aspect of the case.

"This event occurred in a normal route for human smuggling from the Bahamas into the southeast U.S.," Burdian said.

Officials on Wednesday did not give a time frame for how long the search may last, only saying that crews are "exhausting our search efforts."

"The decision to take to the sea is a complicated one. Certainly as we saw in this case, the waters in the northern Florida Straits can be quite treacherous," Burdian said. "In cases like this, small vessels, overloaded, inexperienced operators at night in bad weather is incredibly dangerous."

The commander added that searchers will continue their mission throughout the day Wednesday and will reevaluate from there.

"We can't search forever," Burdian said. "Those are difficult and complex decisions, understanding there are human lives at stake."

Burdian said if family members believe their loved ones were on the capsized boat, they should call the U.S. Coast Guard Miami Sector at 305-535-4300.

"People resort to drastic measures at that point because they know they can’t go back to wherever they came from," said Maricela Torres, who runs the Esperanza Community Center in West Palm Beach, an organization that provides resources to immigrant families, many undocumented.

Torres said these dangerous journeys to the U.S. are common.

"It brings light back to the situation that so many people around the world are experiencing that they want to come here because they believe that their life here is going to be better," Torres said.

Just last Friday, the Coast Guard intercepted 88 Haitians near the Bahamas.

The number of Haitian migrants rescued over the years has tripled since 2017.

  • 1,527 Haitian migrants in fiscal year 2021
  • 418 Haitian migrants in fiscal year 2020
  • 932 Haitian migrants in fiscal year 2019
  • 609 Haitian migrants in fiscal year 2018
  • 419 Haitian migrants in fiscal year 2017

Cuban migrants are also often intercepted and repatriated. Earlier this month, 32 Cubans and one smuggler were intercepted 80 miles off Key West.

The number of Cubans rescued by the Coast Guard has fluctuated drastically over the years.

  • 5,396 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2016
  • 1,468 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2017
  • 259 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2018
  • 313 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2019
  • 49 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2020

"This is an issue that impacts us regionally in South Florida. In the last year alone, we had 700 individuals we suspected were smuggled into various points in South Florida," Burdian said.