The photograph of a young man sitting on the hull of an overturned boat in the middle of the sea off the coast of Florida went around the world. This is Juan Esteban Montoya, 22, from Colombia, according to BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news service.
The young man, rescued on Tuesday (25) after spending hours adrift, said he left the Bahamas on Sunday with 39 other people. He was traveling with his younger sister, María Camila, who disappeared in the shipwreck.
The US Coast Guard rescued five bodies from the sea before ending its search – in a maritime area the size of the US state of New Jersey – on Thursday.
Authorities were alerted to the incident on Tuesday when a commercial vessel spotted a man clinging to the hull of a boat about 72 km from Fort Pierce, Florida. US officials believe the vessel could be part of a “people smuggling scheme”.
None of the 40 passengers were wearing a life jacket, according to Montoya, who is from the municipality of Guacarí in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca region. He was rescued on Tuesday when the tug’s captain, Signet Intruder, spotted him in trouble. “At 8:05 am we brought him aboard, and he was treated immediately. Since he was dehydrated, we gave him water and some food. He was very weak and very distressed,” said the operations manager of the shipping company Signet, in Florida.
“He told us that there were 40 people on his boat in total, including him, and that after leaving Bimini at midnight on Sunday, they completed four hours of voyage until bad weather caused the boat to capsize.”
About 20 people would have resisted for hours clinging to the hull of the vessel, according to Montoya. Captain Jo-Ann Burdian, the Coast Guard commander of the Miami sector, told reporters the incident took place on a “usual” route for smuggling people from the Bahamas to the southern US. Weather conditions on Sunday included a severe cold front, high waves and strong winds.
The island of Bimini is the westernmost district in the Bahamas and is just 80 kilometers from Miami.
Incidents involving boats full of people are not uncommon in Florida waters. Many cases involve migrants from Cuba and Haiti trying to reach the US.
On Tuesday, the same day authorities learned of the sinking, the Coast Guard intercepted 191 Haitian nationals in waters off the Bahamas. In another incident just days earlier, 88 Haitians were found on an overcrowded boat in the area.
“Navigating the Florida Straits, the Mona Channels and the Windward on vessels that are overcrowded and under conditions suitable for navigation is extremely dangerous and could result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard warned in a statement.