BY: BILL HUTCHINSON, ABC NEWS
(MIAMI) — U.S. Coast Guard crews were searching Sunday for 16 people believed missing in the waters off the Florida coast in two ocean rescue emergencies, including one involving a “makeshift vessel” that launched from Cuba with 10 people aboard, officials said.
Both searches began on Friday and continued on Sunday. One of the rescue efforts was launched after a good Samaritan found a man described as a Jamaican national alive 23 miles off the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida, after he said he’d been on a boat with six other people that set sail from Bimini in the Bahamas, according to Coast Guard officials.
The other search was also launched on Friday after 10 people who left Havana, Cuba, in a “6-foot makeshift vessel” went missing off the coast of Key West, authorities said.
The Coast Guard was contacted by a boat operator who said he had rescued a man from the waters directly east of Fort Pierce. The survivor told the boater that he and six other people were aboard a boat that capsized on Wednesday after they left Bimini, which is about 200 miles from Fort Pierce.
It was not immediately clear where the boat was headed when it flipped over.
A 45-foot Coast Guard rescue boat was immediately sent to the scene, officials said. The rescue crew took the survivor to shore and transferred him to a hospital, officials said.
The Coast Guard continued to search the area on Sunday, deploying an HC-130 Hercules airplane and three cutter ships.
The second search also continued Sunday for the 10 people who set out for Florida from Havana on the small rickety homemade vessel last Sunday. Coast Guard officials said it remains unclear what caused the watercraft to vanish.
Coast Guard search planes and boats were searching the area off the coast of Key West, which is a little over 80 miles from Havana.
The search for survivors came just days after the Coast Guard rescued three Cuban nationals located on a deserted Bahaman island, where officials said the men spent 33 days living off coconuts. The men told Coast Guard officials that their vessel capsized in rough waters and that they swam to the deserted island, officials said.
Coast Guard officials say they have seen a recent increase in rescue operations involving Cuban nationals attempting the treacherous journey to seek asylum in the United States.
On Feb. 8, a Coast Guard crew intercepted a makeshift wooden sailboat containing eight Cuban migrants in the waters off Key West after a boater spotted them and contacted authorities. A Coast Guard crew and agents from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol responded to the scene and rescued the seven men and one woman aboard the vessel, officials said.
They were all returned to Cuba, according to a statement from the Coast Guard.
On Jan. 12, seven Cuban nationals were rescued by Coast Guard and Border Patrol agents after their small wooden vessel sank off the Florida Keys. All of those rescued survived and were returned to Cuba, officials said.
Since Oct. 1, the Coast Guard said it has intercepted or rescued 58 Cuban migrants attempting illegal voyages to the United States across the Florida Straits.
“The Coast Guard and our partner agencies will continue to rescue and repatriate undocumented migrants who take to the sea in unseaworthy vessels without safety equipment or a way to call for help,” Lt. Cmdr. Mario Gil, Coast Guard liaison officer to Cuba, said in a statement last week. “Voyages like these are never worth the risk. The Florida Straits waters are unpredictable and the risk for loss of life is great on vessels such as this.”
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