The U.S. Coast Guard said late Tuesday that it would search through the night for 39 people who went missing days earlier after a boat carrying them from the Bahamas capsized off the Atlantic coast of Florida.
Rescuers learned of the accident on Tuesday morning, when a boater, who was described as a “good Samaritan,” found a man clinging to the capsized vessel, the Coast Guard said.
The man said he had been hanging on to the boat since Saturday night, when it left Bimini, in the Bahamas, and began heading north before running into severe weather.
A photo posted by the Coast Guard on Twitter showed the man straddling the boat’s hull.
The 25-foot boat capsized on Sunday morning about 45 miles east of the Fort Pierce Inlet, the Coast Guard said. It was not clear as of Tuesday night what type of boat it was. No one aboard was wearing a life jacket, the Coast Guard said.
“This is a suspected human smuggling venture,” the Coast Guard said on Twitter.
Cutters and helicopters began searching for survivors on Tuesday morning, the Coast Guard said. Officials said the search was complicated because rescuers had started a few days after the capsizing and were trying to cover an area from Bimini to Fort Pierce, about 156 miles northwest.
“Time is of the essence,” said Jose Hernandez, a Coast Guard spokesman.
As of Tuesday night, they had searched more than 1,300 square miles across an area of water about the size of Rhode Island, the Coast Guard said.
The search effort on Tuesday came after at least 31 people were rescued from the water on Friday when their boat capsized five miles west of Bimini, according to the Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force.
The Coast Guard said on Twitter that vessels regularly patrol the waters around Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas “to ensure safety at sea.” The agency warned people not to board unsafe boats.
“Navigating the seas in overloaded and less than seaworthy vessels is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard said.
Vimal Patel and Mike Ives contributed reporting.