The U.S. Coast Guard announced Thursday it will suspend its active search at sunset for survivors of a capsizing off the Florida coast, leaving little hope that any of the remaining 34 missing people from the vessel would be found alive.
Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of Coast Guard Sector Miami, said during a press conference that the search-and-rescue teams have located five bodies of 39 who were suspected to be missing, in a search area roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts.
The service plans, however, to call off its "active search" unless it receives additional information to focus its hunt.
"Unfortunately, we've come to the most difficult time in any search-and-rescue case ... the point at which we decide when to cease actively searching," Burdian said. "I have made the very difficult decision balancing everything we know about on-scene weather conditions, the number of people who went on the water and how confident we are in our search area."
The rescue effort started unfolding Tuesday after a good Samaritan found a man atop a capsized 25-foot boat 45 miles east of the Fort Pierce Inlet on Florida's Atlantic coast and brought him to shore.
The survivor said he left Bimini, Bahamas, on Saturday night with 39 other people. When their vessel encountered rough weather, including a cold front that generated waves up to nine feet and 23-mile-per-hour winds, the vessel rolled over.
No one was wearing a life jacket, the rescued man told officials.
The Coast Guard began searching shortly after the man was rescued. Units taking part in the effort include the Coast Guard coastal patrol boats Ibis and Skipjack, the fast response cutter Etheridge, crews from Coast Guard Station Fort Pierce, and aircraft and aircrews from Coast Guard Air Stations Miami and Clearwater and the Navy's 2nd Fleet.
A Coast Guard Auxiliary Grumman Tiger aircrew also participated.
Burdian declined to say what nationality the migrants were; in the past several months, the service has intercepted more than 100 persons from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as well as Mexico, Central America and Yemen.
The press conference was held both in English and Spanish to reach the broad audience of Spanish residents in southeastern Florida and the media outlets that serve them.
The suspension of the search does not mean the Coast Guard is "closing the case," Burdian said. Instead, she explained, it will no longer dedicate assets exclusively for the search.
The service will continue to investigate the accident, concurrently with a criminal investigation underway by the Department of Homeland Security.
Miami Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury said Thursday that Homeland Security will try to identify, arrest and prosecute any criminal organization that facilitated the voyage or is profiting from human trafficking.
"As of right now, this is still an ongoing investigation being pursued by Homeland Security Investigation, and its federal, state, local and foreign partners," Salisbury said during the press conference.
The agency routinely stresses the dangers of overseas crossings, which migrants often make on overcrowded vessels or those that aren't seaworthy.
"The time is never right to attempt migration by sea," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last July following unrest in Haiti and Cuba. "To those who risk their lives doing so, this risk is not worth taking. Allow me to be clear: If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States."
Despite the risks, thousands still try to reach the U.S. via ship annually. The number of migrants attempting to reach the U.S. has risen steadily since 2017, from 4,760 that year to 7,583 in 2021, according to the Coast Guard.
Salisbury urged anyone with information and family members who think they may have had a loved one on the vessel that capsized last weekend to contact the Department of Homeland Security's investigations line at 866-347-2423.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.