Discovery brings total to five, but search for survivors will be suspended if new discoveries are not made, says US coast guard
Last modified on Thu 27 Jan 2022 18.22 EST
The US coast guard said it would call off the search for survivors at sunset on Thursday if no new discoveries were made following a boat capsizing off the Florida coast at the weekend with 40 people on board.
Four more bodies had been discovered, bringing the total to five, Capt Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of the coast guard’s Miami sector, said in a press conference on Thursday.
“We have found four deceased bodies in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to five deceased bodies that we have recovered. These victims have been in the water since Saturday,” she said.
“I have made the very difficult decision, balancing everything that we know about unseen weather conditions, the number of people in the water, how confident we are in our search area … that at sunset this evening, we will suspend actively searching.”
Burdian said the coast guard would no longer be dedicating assets specifically to the search although it would retain its on-water presence.
Anthony Salisbury, of the Department of Homeland Security, spoke of the US authorities’ belief that a human smuggling operation had been underway and said: “As of right now, this is still an ongoing investigation … The goal of this investigation is to identify, arrest and prosecute any criminal or criminal organization that facilitated or profited from this doomed venture.”
He added that the coast guard “hasn’t done any assessment” of the nationalities of the victims, and declined to disclose the nationality of the lone survivor so far.
That lone survivor, found clinging to the hull of the overturned boat, said the boat capsized late Saturday. He said 40 people had set out for Florida from Bimini, an island in the Bahamas, the archipelago nation located about 300 miles east from the US coast.
The survivor was taken to a hospital and was treated for dehydration and sun exposure symptoms. The victims were understood from the survivor’s account not to have had the benefit of life jackets.
Burdian said the survivor had told rescuers that the boat sailed into a storm after leaving the Bahamas.
“HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] is conducting a criminal investigation so our interest is obviously what he has to say about what happened to him. [We’re] viewing him as a victim right now,” Salisbury said in reference to the survivor.
According to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, 1,194 migrants tried to reach Miami, Florida last October from Haiti, and were repatriated to Haiti. Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated last summer, sparking chaos in the country.
The majority of asylum seekers who attempt to reach Florida via sea hail from Haiti and Cuba.