STUART, Fla. â€“ A body was found amid an ongoing search Wednesday in a swath of the Atlantic Ocean the size of New Jersey for 38 people missing from a boat thatÂ capsized off the Florida coast.
The search began early Tuesday after a man clinging to a capsized boat was found by sailors on a passing ship,Â Coast Guard Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian said Wednesday. The man, who was being treated for dehydration and sun exposure,Â told authorities the 25-foot boat encountered severe weather after sailingÂ Saturday night from Bimini in the Bahamas, bound for Florida.
Burdian said human smuggling was suspected and that no one aboard had a life jacket.Â
“It is dire the longer they remain in the water,” Burdian said. “Without food, withoutÂ water, the sun, the sea conditions. … Every moment that passes it becomes much more dire and more unlikelyÂ that someone could survive.”
The ship that found and rescued the survivorÂ was identified by the Coast Guard as the Signet Intruder, described as a towboat on the Signet Maritime Corp. website.
The Coast Guard was notified and a contingent of planes, helicopters and ships took up the search. Aircraft spotted what appeared to be a body and directed a cutter that collected the remains, Burdian said.
Searchers were examiningÂ debris fields “consistent” with the tragedy, Burdian said.
Finding the other migrants alive was the highest priority, but she noted “we can’t search forever.”
Where did the boat capsize?
The man was found clinging to the boat about 45 miles east of Fort Pierce â€“ which is on the Atlantic Coast about 125 miles north of MiamiÂ â€“ and about 100 miles north of the island of Bimini.
The man said the boat left Bimini on Saturday night. Ferries routinely make the 50 mile trip to the Florida coastÂ in about two hours in good weather.
The Signet Intruder was returning to Jacksonville, Florida,Â on its way from Puerto Rico when the crew “spotted something drifting in the water,” said fleet operations manager Joshua Benson,Â “but were too far away to see what it was.”
After they helped the survivor board their vessel and gave him liquids, they “realized the gravity of the situation.”
The Signet Intruder’s normal route would have missed the capsized boat by about 10 miles. But earlier they made anÂ unplanned turn in the water to “give way” to another vessel, making theÂ discovery possible, Benson told USA TODAY.
â€œIf they had not made that turn, they would have never come across him,” he said.Â “It was luck of chance.â€
Coast Guard officialsÂ saidÂ they were searching an area extending from Bimini to the Fort Pierce Inlet.Â
RESCUERS SEARCH:Â Large group of people missingÂ off Florida coast after boat capsizesÂ
What was the weather like?
The Coast Guard said a small craft advisory had been issued as a severe cold front blew through the dangerous passage Saturday and Sunday, with winds up to 23 mph and swells up to 9 feet high. Tommy Sewell, a local bonefishing guide, said there were 20 mph winds and fierce squalls of rain on Sunday into Monday.
â€œNavigating the Florida Straits, Windward and Mona Passages … is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,â€ the Coast Guard said in a statement last weekend.
Where did the migrants come from?
The Coast Guard has not revealed the national origin of the missing migrants.Â Homeland Security officers have talked to the survivor, but Anthony Salisbury, special agent in charge of the agencyâ€™s Miami office, declined to reveal names or nationalities. The effort includes U.S. agents in the Bahamas.
Human smuggling in the region is a recurring problem. Friday, the Coast Guard found 88 Haitians in an overloaded sail freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahamas. Most making the trip are from Haiti and Cuba, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force has reported apprehending migrants from other parts of the world, including from Colombia and Ecuador earlier this month.
Is human smuggling via the Bahamas common?
Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a stepping stone to reach Florida and the United States. They typically try to take advantage of breaks in the weather to make the crossing, but the vessels are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing. The Coast Guard patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas.
â€œYouâ€™re dealing with criminal organizations that have no value for human life or safety. Itâ€™s really victimizing the migrants. Itâ€™s just about the money,â€ SalisburyÂ said.
Human smuggling in the region resulted in scores of deaths in 2021
There have been thousands of deaths over the years â€“ and those are just the tragedies authorities learn about. The true toll will never be known.
In December, at least 53 migrants from Central America died when their cargo truckÂ rolled over and crashed into a bridgeÂ in Mexico. Mexican officials are investigating the collision, which happenedÂ in theÂ state of ChiapasÂ â€“Â the first state migrants enter after crossing the Guatemalan border with Mexico.
Last March,Â 13 migrants suspected of entering the country illegally were killed when an SUVÂ carrying 25 peopleÂ from Mexico and GuatemalaÂ collided with a truck in CaliforniaÂ near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Contributing: The Associated Press