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Boat Suspected of Being Used for Human Smuggling Capsizes Off Florida Coast, One Dead, 38 Missing

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Published: January 27, 2022
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U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami Commander Captain Jo-Ann F. Burdian arrives to speak during a press conference about the ongoing search for survivors of a capsized vessel on Jan. 26, 2022 in Miami, Florida. The Commander said they continued the search and rescue operation for survivors after a boat believed to be involved in a human smuggling operation capsized off the Florida coast. Capt. Burdian said at least one person is dead, and dozens more are missing. (Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, rescue workers responded to the capsizing of a commercial vessel off the coast of Florida, confirming at least one death and 38 others missing. Only one victim was found alive after what is believed to be an attempted migrant crossing.

On Tuesday, the crew of a private tugboat, the Signet Intruder, spotted a lone confirmed survivor clinging to the overturned vessel. 

“We were towing a very large barge that was roughly 2,500 feet behind us, so it (took) a little finesse to get close enough to the vessel and not cause any waves to knock the man off,” Joshua Nelson, operations manager for the Jacksonville Fleet of Signet Maritime Corp — the owner of the tug — said in a telephone interview.

Upon rescuing the man, the crew contacted the Coast Guard, who believed that the boat capsized around 72 kilometers (45 miles) east of the town of Fort Pierce.

After being rescued, the survivor told authorities that there were 39 other people on board the boat after it departed the Bimini Islands in the Bahamas, 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Miami, on Saturday night. 

The next morning, after departing from the Bimini Islands, the ship capsized after it encountered bad weather. Reuters reported, there was a “small-craft advisory” placed in the area where the ship was sinking, that warned of “high winds and heavy seas.”

Captain Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of the Coast Guard’s Miami sector, said, “The waters in the northern Florida Straits can be quite treacherous.”

“In cases like this, small vessels, overloaded, inexperienced operators, at night in bad weather can be incredibly dangerous,” she added.

According to the survivor, no one was wearing a life jacket while on board the vessel.

The Coast Guard is cooperating with other government agencies to continue the search for the missing occupants of the boat, covering an area the size of New Jersey.

Captain Burdian confirmed on Wednesday that one body was found so far. In a news conference, she said that finding the other missing people is “[the Coast Guard’s] highest priority.”

However, she stressed the lowering odds of survival for the passengers as they continue to be left adrift or stranded at sea.

“It is dire. The longer they remain in the water… exposed to the marine environment… with every moment that passes, it becomes much more dire and more unlikely” that survivors will be found, she said.

The Coast Guard currently has cutter vessels and aircraft searching the entire area from Bimini to Fort Pierce — an area as large as Rhode Island — for the missing migrants.

The nationalities of the survivor and his fellow passengers are currently unknown.

Migrant situation

The capsizing of the vessel comes following a surge of migrant crossings, with many asylum seekers hoping to reach Florida on small-scaled vessels through waters where human smuggling is commonly known.

According to Homeland Security Investigations agent Anthony Salisbury, “there’s [been] an increase in these human smuggling organizations” over the last year. 

“These human smuggling organizations, you’re dealing with criminals,” Salisbury said. “They really prey on the migrant community.”

It has been reported that the Coast Guard recently stopped another vessel from the Bahamas, discovering 191 Haitian migrants believed to be en route for Florida.

Much like the recent incident, other capsized vessels have been found, with Haitian or Cuban migrants hoping to find asylum in the U.S to escape  from  political and economic problems plaguing Central America and the Caribbean.

Last Friday, in another ill-fated migrant crossing, 32 people were rescued from another overturned ship west of Bimini.