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Coast Guard ends migrant search off Florida coast after 5 bodies found, 34 more feared dead

Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami commander. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search Thursday night for dozens of migrants who disappeared in the ocean after their boat capsized about 40 miles off Fort Pierce Inlet shortly after it left the Bahamas en route to Florida.

Five bodies have been recovered since Wednesday and one survivor was rescued. There were 40 migrants on the boat when it capsized.

The Coast Guard had said during an afternoon news briefing in Miami Beach that there was little chance any more survivors would be located other than the one man found resting on the bow of the overturned 25-foot vessel. After sunset, the agency called off the search.

HSI Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury speaks to the media at U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

“It does mean we think it’s unlikely anyone else survived,” Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of Coast Guard Sector Miami, told reporters Thursday during a news briefing at the Coast Guard’s Miami Beach base.

The case is under investigation as a criminal human smuggling matter by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. The agency would not comment Thursday on the nationalities of the migrants.

“That’s a lot of what we’re trying to piece together right now,” Anthony Salisbury, chief agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, said at the briefing.

The survivor, saved by the crew of a barge-towing tugboat on its way back to Jacksonville from Puerto Rico, said the migrant vessel went down in stormy weather not long after it left Bimini. He told the Coast Guard that the boat was carrying 40 people, including himself.

The survivor, possibly a Colombian national, was found about 8 a.m. Monday about 40 miles east of Fort Pierce Inlet. The Coast Guard recovered one body Wednesday morning and four others since.

The lawyer representing the survivor, Naimeh Salem, told el Nuevo Herald that his name is Juan Esteban Montoya, he is 22, is of Colombian origin and witnessed the death of his sister.

“She died. He witnessed the death of his sister, unfortunately,” the immigration attorney reported in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The mother of the survivor said that her son told her that he “lived through hell” when the fragile boat capsized and that most of those aboard died Saturday night when the event occurred.

The woman in an interview with Telemundo’s Channel 51 said that her 22-year-old son was in the boat with his 18-year-old sister.

“I asked him, tell me about your sister, where is she? And he told me, ‘Mom, my sister died. I couldn’t find her, I called her and I couldn’t find her. My sister couldn’t take it,’” the woman, who Telemundo identified only as Marcia, said in Spanish as she cried.

Salem told el Nuevo Herald that the young man is still hospitalized in a Fort Pierce medical center. His condition is stable, but he is “a little traumatized” by what he experienced.

He also revealed that the young Colombian’s family lives in Houston, a city where the mother has lived for 11 years.

“The family lives in Houston. I don’t have the slightest idea how they decided to make that sea crossing and the mother doesn’t know either,” he said.

The lawyer plans to request the young man’s freedom through a humanitarian parole and then analyze the immigration resource for which he would qualify in order to stay in the United States.

It is possible that the young man, upon discharge from the medical center, will pass into the custody of Customs and Border Protection, Salem said.

Burdian said the agency, along with other federal, state and local agencies, launched a massive air and sea search after the survivor was found. Burdian said the search spanned from the Fort Pierce Inlet area to around Port Canaveral.

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.

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.

Saturday’s tragedy occurred in the midst of a surge in maritime migration to South Florida, mostly involving people from Cuba and Haiti looking to escape the political and economic turmoil within their countries.

The federal government tracks migration by the fiscal year, which begins and ends Oct. 1. Four months into this fiscal year, seaborne migration from both Cuba and Haiti is on track to surpass fiscal year 2021, which was up significantly from the previous year.

The Coast Guard reported this week that it has stopped more than 800 Haitians at sea attempting to reach the U.S. In all of fiscal year 2021, the agency stopped 1,527, up from 418 the year before.

In fiscal year 2020, the Coast Guard only stopped 49 people from Cuba trying to reach Florida by boat — most often makeshift, barely seaworthy vessels. That number spiked to 838 last year. And, since October, Coast Guard crews have already stopped 557 Cubans making the dangerous journey across the Florida Straits.

In the Florida Keys, a frequent destination of Cuban migrants, three overloaded sailboats packed with Haitian migrants arrived on three separate occasions between November and January in almost the exact same location off a remote highway in Key Largo.

It’s not just South Florida seeing its shores as a landing spot for the migrants. Earlier this week, dozens of Haitians arrived on a rustic vessel on the beach of Rincón, Puerto Rico.

And, on Jan. 21, the Coast Guard intercepted 88 Haitians near the Bahamas and returned them to Haiti. Another 191 Haitians aboard an overloaded sailboat were stopped at sea Tuesday about 40 miles southwest of Great Inagua in the southern Bahamas.

Salisbury 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.

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