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5 dead, 34 missing after human smuggling boat capsized, search suspended

Jan 26, 2022

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Update (Jan. 27, 2022): After an additional four bodies were found, the Coast Guard announced the search for a suspected human smuggling boat that capsized over the weekend would be suspended. There are now 34 people missing, with five dead and only one survivor. The video above includes the scene near where the boat went missing, as well as clips from a Wednesday Coast Guard news conference.

“Unfortunately, we’ve come to the most difficult time in any search and rescue case, and that is the point at which we decide when to cease actively searching,” Coast Guard Capt. Jo-Ann F. Burdian said Thursday. “I have made the very difficult decision balancing everything we know about on-scene weather conditions, the number of people who went in the water, how confident we are in our search area and the effort we’ve put forth, that if we do not receive additional information today that can refine our search or direct us toward additional survivors, that at sunset this evening we will suspend actively searching.”

The Miami office of Homeland Security Investigations has launched an inquiry, saying the migrants’ journey was most likely part of a human smuggling operation. Under federal law, a smuggler convicted of causing a death is eligible for execution.

“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,” Department of Homeland Security official Tony Salisbury said.

Original Story (Jan. 26, 2022): Coast Guard officials continued its search off the Florida coast Wednesday for 38 people missing what a suspected human smuggling boat capsized over the weekend. So far, one body has been recovered, and there is one known survivor. According to Coast Guard Capt. Jo-Ann F. Burdian, a merchant vessel spotted the survivor about 40 miles off Fort Pierce Tuesday, sitting alone on the overturned hull of the boat.

“The survivor reported leaving Bimini Saturday evening with 39 other people on board the vessel,” Capt. Burdian said Wednesday. “The vessel capsized shortly after they departed due to severe weather in the area. The survivor was not wearing a life jacket and reported that no one else on board was wearing a life jacket. The survivor’s condition is stable.”

The survivor was brought to a hospital with symptoms of dehydration and sun exposure and is now in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.

Bimini is a small island in the Bahamas, located about 55 miles east of Miami and about 100 miles south of where the survivor was found. Burdian said the Coast Guard suspects “this is a case of human smuggling” because the boat appeared to be headed on “a normal route for human smuggling from the Bahamas into the southeast U.S.”

“Homeland Security Investigations is leading the investigation of the facts and backgrounds into that component of this case,” Burdian said. “My focus remains on search and rescue.”

After the Coast Guard was notified of the spotted survivor, crews began searching around the clock for the human smuggling boat. By Wednesday morning, crews on at least four ships and five aircraft scanned a vast area about the size of New Jersey. Burdian described the search as “dire.”

“The longer they remain in the water without food, without water, exposed to the marine environment, the sun, the sea conditions, it is every moment that passes it becomes much more dire and unlikely that anyone could survive in those conditions,” Burdian said.

Wednesday’s weather forecast called for rain and possible thunderstorms in the search area, with swells cresting at 2 to 3 feet and winds blowing at 12 to 15 mph.

Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, U.S. Coast Guard: “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.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve we’ve come to the most difficult time in any search and rescue case, and that is the point at which we decide when to cease actively searching. I have made the very difficult decision balancing everything we know about on-scene weather conditions, the number of people who went in the water, how confident we are in our search area and the effort we’ve put forth, that if we do not receive additional information today that can refine our search or direct us toward additional survivors, that at sunset this evening we will suspend actively searching.”

Tony Salisbury, Department of Homeland Security: “This is still an ongoing investigation being pursued by Homeland Security investigation and its federal, state, local and foreign partners. 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.”

Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, U.S. Coast Guard: “It does mean that we don’t think it’s likely that anyone else has survived. And again, that’s why we say we’re suspending and not closing. That’s based on the best information we have right now.”


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