Published Tuesday, August 13, 1996, in the Miami Herald.

Rafters' boat capsizes; two dead, two missing

By NANCY KLINGENER Herald Staff Writer KEY WEST -- A woman and a toddler died in waters off the Florida Keys Monday, part of a group of 31 Cuban refugees who tried to cross the Florida Straits in a small wooden boat. Two others were still missing late Monday. ``They had some sort of engine malfunction,'' shortly after midnight Monday, said Petty Officer Mark Mackowiak. ``Several of the people on board leaned over to see what may have been wrong.'' The boat capsized, spilling everyone into the water. ``That's when the woman and infant died,'' Mackowiak said. The woman, 47, had a 20-year-old son on the boat. He told the Coast Guard what happened. The parents of the 16-month-old girl who drowned were also on the boat. After the boat capsized, the group saw lights on the horizon. Thinking the lights were from Key West, two men took a rubber raft and paddled off to get help. Those men are still missing. A Coast Guard jet and two helicopters were looking for them Monday evening. ``We're doing some work on whether they were seeing Key West or a boat or a different part of the Keys,'' said Lt. j.g. Rich Condit, spokesman for Coast Guard Group Key West. Something in the distance The first news of the tragedy came from two sportfishing boats, the Sundance and the Standby. They came across the two bodies 25 miles south of Marathon about 10:30 a.m. Monday and called the Coast Guard. Then they spotted something in the distance. It was the overturned hull of the wooden boat, surrounded by the refugees, in one- to three-foot seas. ``Most of them were clinging to the boat and the rest of them were nearby,'' Condit said. The Sundance and Standby picked up the 27 survivors -- 14 men, nine women and four children. The Coast Guard launched a full-scale rescue mission with two boats from Marathon, a cutter from Key West, two helicopters and a jet from Miami and two helicopters from Clearwater. ``This is probably one of the largest aviation responses to any case I've seen down here,'' Condit said. ``It's significant when you have almost 30 people in the water that far from shore.'' By early afternoon, the survivors were on board the 110-foot cutter Nantucket. The bodies of the dead were taken to the Coast Guard station in Marathon. An agent from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was on the Nantucket Monday evening, interviewing the survivors. U.S. policy now dictates that Cuban rafters picked up at sea are returned to Cuba unless Immigration finds a basis for their claims to asylum. Survivors are examined All the survivors were examined by a paramedic on board the Nantucket. At one point, the Coast Guard considered airlifting a 4-year-old girl who was unconscious after the rescue. But her condition improved quickly and officials decided against it. ``She came to and is now running around the deck like a regular 4-year-old,'' Condit said. This is one of the largest groups of Cuban refugees to attempt a crossing this year. Since the 1994 rafter crisis, the few who have tried the trip have mostly been in small groups of five or six. In July, a total of 30 people were picked up or rescued from the Straits. There were 31 on this boat when it left Cuba. Not counting Monday's refugees, 179 rafters have been rescued by the Coast Guard this year. Another six came ashore on Key Largo early Monday. That group of six was discovered near the Best Western at mile marker 100 about 5:30 a.m., said deputy Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. They said they had been out on the water for several days. ``They were hungry and thirsty, but otherwise OK,'' Herrin said. They were held at the sheriff's substation, given food and water, then turned over to the INS.

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1996 The Miami Herald.