MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – The Coast Guard says it has found four more bodies in its search for nearly 40 migrants lost at sea off the east coast of Florida after their boat capsized in severe weather over the weekend. With the death toll at five, 34 people remain missing.
Homeland Security Investigations officials said they were actively investigating the case as a human smuggling operation.
Coast Guard Capt. Jo-Ann F. Burdian said they have decided to suspend the search at sunset Thursday, pending any new discoveries, but that the decision was not an easy one.
“We have saturated the area over and over again,” she said. “We’ve had good visibility. We know we’re searching in the right area. We’ve overflown the vessel a number of times and have found additional deceased persons. It does mean we don’t think it’s likely that anyone else has survived.”
The Miami office of Homeland Security Investigations said it believes the overturned boat a man was found clinging to on Tuesday was part of a human smuggling operation and they have launched an investigation to determine who was behind it. 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,” said HSI Miami Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury.
PREVIOUS: Coast Guard crews searching for survivors after suspected human smuggling boat capsizes off Florida coast
The lone survivor who was found clinging to the hull of the overturned boat on Tuesday said the boat capsized late Saturday after he and 39 others had set out for Florida from the island of Bimini in the Bahamas.
The man told the good Samaritan who rescued him that none of those in his group were wearing life jackets as their 25-foot boat capsized in severe weather about 40 miles off the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida.
Authorities said the boat was found about 100 miles north from where it had capsized, apparently pushed north by the Gulf Stream. The turbulent waters of that current can be treacherous even on a calm, sunny day. But over the weekend, a small craft advisory had been issued as a severe cold front blew through the dangerous passage, with winds up to 23 mph and swells up to 9 feet.