At least 11 dead, 38 survivors rescued after boat capsizes near Puerto Rico; ‘mass rescue effort’ continues Friday

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At least 11 people are dead and 38 survivors have been rescued after a makeshift boat loaded with suspected migrants capsized north of an island near Puerto Rico.

Ricardo Castrodad, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard’s San Juan sector, told USA TODAY on Friday a “mass rescue effort” including multiple agencies and search helicopters continued into Friday.

Of the 38 survivors, eight remain hospitalized, he said. Thirty-six of them are Haitian while two are Dominican Republic nationals, Castrodad added.

“We still hope to find additional survivors,” he said. “As the search efforts get prolonged, it is more difficult and more challenging, and the odds of finding someone alive will decrease over time. But our efforts right now are focused on finding any possible survivors.”

Castrodad said border patrol agents are interviewing survivors to get a better estimate of how many people may have been on the vessel at the time it capsized.

Initial reports Thursday said 31 people had been rescued.

The U.S. Coast Guard received a report just before noon Thursday from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft that spotted the capsized boat more than 11 miles north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, off Puerto Rico’s west coast, according to a statement sent to USA TODAY.

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The statement described the capsized vessel as being “suspected of taking part in an illegal voyage.”

The Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and Puerto Rico police marine units responded to the scene.

“Thanks to the report from the customs crew, we were able to coordinate a response with multiple agencies and rescue this number of survivors,” Castrodad said. “…If not for them, we would not have known that these people were in trouble.”

Castrodad said the 25-foot boat is known as a “yola,” or a makeshift vessel he described as “very, very dangerous.”

“These voyages, from the moment they initiate, is a capsizing waiting to happen,” he said. “These makeshift vessels are grossly overloaded, taking on water, have no life-saving equipment, facing constantly changing conditions. It doesn’t take much for any of these vessels to potentially capsize.”

In addition, Castrodad said the vessel capsized far from shore in an area where quickly changing weather conditions may be challenging for rescuers. He said these boats are also often difficult to detect and only found when it’s too late, adding that they are lucky crews spotted the capsizing in this instance.

An increasing number of migrant boats have been intercepted in recent years as migrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic flee as a result of violence and poverty. In Haiti, increasing gang-related violence and kidnappings have led to thousands fleeing their homes.

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From October to March, 2021, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were detained in waters near Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In fiscal year 2021, which was from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, 310 Haitians and 354 Dominicans were detained according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Just a year before, 22 Haitians and 313 Dominicans were apprehended.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Dominican navy on Saturday rescued 68 migrants in the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In January, a sole survivor was reported in a search for 38 people after a suspected human smuggling boat capsized off Florida’s coast.

Contributing: The Associated Press