The US Coast Guard searched Tuesday for 39 people missing for several days after a boat believed to be used for people smuggling capsized off the coast of Florida en route from the Bahamas.
A good Samaritan called the Coast Guard early Tuesday after rescuing a man clinging to the boat 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Fort Pierce, the maritime safety agency reported on Twitter.
The man said he was with a group of 39 other people who left the island of Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday night. He said the boat capsized in severe weather and no one was wearing life jackets.
The Coast Guard is calling it a suspected case of human trafficking. Officials said on Twitter that they are searching by air and sea in an area about 135 miles (218 kilometers) stretching from Bimini to Fort Pierce Inlet.
A cold front on Saturday night brought bad weather to the Bimini area. Tommy Sewell, a local bonefishing guide, said there were 20 mph (32 kph) winds and fierce rain storms from Sunday into Monday.
Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a springboard to reach Florida and the United States. They usually try to take advantage of breaks in the weather to make the crossing, but the ships are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing. There have been thousands of deaths over the years.
The Coast Guard patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Bahamas.
For the most part, the migrants are from Haiti and Cuba, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force has reported detaining migrants from other parts of the world, including those from Colombia and Ecuador earlier this month.
On Friday, the Coast Guard found 88 Haitians on an overloaded sailing freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahamas.
“Navigating the Florida Straits, Windward and Mona Passages…is extremely dangerous and may result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard said in a statement last weekend.
Last July, the Coast Guard rescued 13 people after their boat capsized off Key West as Tropical Storm Elsa approached.
The survivors said they had left Cuba with 22 people on board. Nine disappeared into the water.