MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Four more bodies have been recovered during the search for dozens of missing boaters involved in a human smuggling operation off the Florida Coast, bringing the total number of dead to five, officials said Thursday.
Calling it a "challenging" day of operations, Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian with the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami said the agency was planning to suspend its search at sunset Thursday.
"The decision to suspend is really a very, very complicated one," Burdian said. "We don't think it's likely that anyone else has survived."
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Officials said a 25-foot boat with 39 people on board capsized in severe weather Saturday night, shortly after leaving Bimini, Bahamas.
A commercial mariner rescued a man Tuesday morning 45 miles east of the Fort Pierce Inlet after he saw the boater clinging to the overturned vessel. He was taken to the hospital where he's now in stable condition.
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Burdian said crews using at least three ships and eight aircraft have combed an area between the northern Florida Straits and Port Canaveral, roughly the size of Massachusetts.
"We have found four deceased bodies in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to five deceased bodies we've recovered inside our search area," Burdian said.
Burdian said deteriorating weather conditions, the time the boaters have been in the water, and the scope of the search area are all factors in the Coast Guard's difficult decision to suspend its mission.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has launched a criminal investigation into the smuggling incident to punish those responsible for organizing the journey.
"The goal of this investigation is to identify, arrest, and prosecute any criminal or criminal organization that organized, facilitated, or profited from this doomed venture," said Special Agent Anthony Salisbury.
Officials said the boat capsized in a route that's typically used for human smuggling from the Bahamas into the southeast U.S.
The nationalities of the 39 people on board have not been released.
Salisbury said if family members believe their loved ones were on the capsized boat, they should call the Homeland Security Investigations tip line at 866-347-2423.
"Please help us bring criminals who prey on and victimize the vulnerable migrant community to justice," Salisbury said. "We don't want anybody doing this again to any more migrants. This is dangerous stuff."