Coast Guard Suspends Search for 34 Missing People Who Vanished off Fla. Coast, Fears No More Survivors

A 25-foot vessel carrying 40 people from the Bahamas capsized during a storm Saturday night, leaving only one known survivor

Coast Guard search
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty

The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended its exhaustive search for dozens of people who went missing during a suspected human smuggling event off the coast of Florida Saturday night.

Coast Guard Sector Miami Captain Jo-Ann Burdian announced Thursday afternoon that she had made the "complicated" decision to call search and rescue teams back to shore come sunset.

For nearly three full days, several crews scoured an area more than 10,500 square miles — roughly the size of Massachusetts — finding five bodies and no survivors.

"If we do not receive additional information today that can refine our search or direct us toward additional survivors … we will cease actively searching," Burdian said during Thursday's media briefing.

She later added: "We don't think it's likely that anyone else has survived."

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The Coast Guard was first alerted of a "dire" situation involving missing migrants on Tuesday morning, when a man was rescued at sea by a good Samaritan approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce, Fla.

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.

Burdian said that a total of five bodies were recovered during the search and rescue operation, leaving an estimated 34 people still unaccounted for.

After five full days passed without food, water and lifejackets, search crews began fearing all 34 unaccounted-for people dead.

Homeland Security Investigations is investigating the incident that may have claimed as many as 39 lives 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.

"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," HSI Miami Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury explained at the media briefing.

The names, nationalities and ages of the 40 people aboard the ship when it capsized have not been revealed, but Salisbury said that investigators are considering the lone survivor a victim, not a suspect.

"Please help us bring criminals who prey on and victimize the vulnerable migrant community to justice," he said. "We don't want anybody doing this again. ... This is dangerous stuff."

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