Coast Guard: 1 body found after boat capsizes off Florida coast; 38 still missing

The U.S. Coast Guard says that its crews have recovered one body and continue to search for 38 other people who were in a suspected human smuggling boat that capsized off the east coast of Florida over the weekend.

Searchers worked throughout the night after a solitary survivor was found by a good Samaritan Tuesday morning clinging to the overturned hull of a boat that capsized off the Florida coast.

Capt. Jo-Ann F. Burdian told reporters on Wednesday that finding the other migrants alive is their highest priority.

"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.

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Crews on at least four ships and five aircraft already scanned a vast area about the size of New Jersey, Burdian said.

The man told a good Samaritan who rescued him that he was part of a group of 40 people who left the island of Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday night in what the maritime security agency suspects was a human smuggling operation. He said none wore life jackets as they capsized in severe weather.

coast guard capsized rescue

(Photo: US Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard said a small craft advisory had been issued as a severe cold front blew through the dangerous passage on Saturday and Sunday, with winds up to 23 mph and swells up to 9 feet high. Tommy Sewell, a local bonefishing guide, said there were high winds and fierce squalls of rain on Sunday into Monday.

The survivor was brought to a hospital for symptoms of dehydration and sun exposure after he was found early Tuesday sitting on the hull 45 miles east of Fort Pierce, the agency reported. The Coast Guard did not immediately describe the nationality of the survivor or the people lost at sea.

Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a steppingstone to reach Florida and the United States. They typically try to take advantage of breaks in the weather to make the crossing, but the vessels are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing. There have been thousands of deaths over the years.

For the most part, these migrants are from Haiti and Cuba, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force has reported apprehending migrants from other parts of the world, including from Colombia and Ecuador earlier this month.

The Coast Guard constantly patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas. On Friday, its crews pulled 88 Haitians from an overloaded sail freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahamas.

"Navigating the Florida straits, Windward and Mona Passages ... is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life," the Coast Guard said last weekend.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.