5 People Dead, 34 Still Missing After Boat Capsizes off Fla. Coast During Suspected 'Human Smuggling Venture'

The Coast Guard will stop actively searching for survivors if no new leads are discovered before sunset Thursday

Coast Guard search
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty

Five people are confirmed dead and 34 missing people are now feared dead after a boat capsized off the Florida coast Saturday night during a suspected human smuggling event.

On Tuesday morning, a man was rescued at sea by a good Samaritan approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce, Fla., the U.S. Coast Guard announced.

According to the Coast Guard, the man was discovered clinging to a capsized vessel, which he said was damaged Saturday night when he and several others who had departed from Bimini in the Bahamas encountered severe weather.

The survivor reported that 39 others were on the vessel with him when it capsized, none of whom were wearing life jackets.

In a media briefing Thursday, Captain Jo-Ann Burdian of Coast Guard Sector Miami announced that the search for survivors has spanned an area roughly the size of Massachusetts over the past two days.

Burdian said that as of Thursday afternoon, a total of five bodies had been recovered during the search, leaving 34 people still unaccounted for.

Rescue teams have considered the search "dire" from the beginning, and as the missing people approach what would be five full days of being lost at sea without food, water and lifejackets, Burdian said that hope of finding more survivors has waned.

"Unfortunately we've come to the most difficult time in any search and rescue case," she said, "and that is the point at which we decide to cease actively searching."

If search and rescue teams do not discover new leads or find additional survivors by the time daylight hours end Thursday, crews will be called back to shore, reflecting the Coast Guard's belief that "they don't think it's likely anyone else has survived," according to Burdian.

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE's free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.

While the Coast Guard wraps up its search, the Department of Homeland Security is investigating the incident as a case of human smuggling due to the number of people reportedly aboard the 25-foot vessel and the route upon which it was traveling.

"This event occurred in a normal route for human smuggling from the Bahamas into the Southeast," Burdian said in a previous media briefing Wednesday.

"The decision to take to the sea is a complicated one. Certainly as we saw in this case, the waters in the Northern Florida Straits can be quite treacherous," she said, "and while for many, many recreational boaters here in South Florida the transit between points in South Florida and points in the Bahamas can be quick and easy, in cases like this — small vessels, overloaded, with inexperienced operators at night with bad weather — [it's] incredibly dangerous."

The names, nationalities and ages of the 40 people aboard the ship when it capsized have not been revealed.

Related Articles