By Brian Ellsworth
MIAMI (Reuters) -Rescue teams have found one body in their search for 39 people reported missing after their boat capsized off Florida's coast, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Wednesday, in what is being called a human smuggling attempt gone awry.
Coast Guard Commander Jo-Ann Burdian said during a news conference in Miami that search and rescue efforts would continue for survivors, a day after a good Samaritan found a man perched on the mostly submerged hull of the overturned boat in the Atlantic Ocean and rescued him.
"We do suspect that this is a case of human smuggling, as this event occurred in a normal route for human smuggling," Burdian said, adding that U.S. Homeland Security officials were investigating the incident.
Burdian said a cutter crew found the deceased person. She said information about the person will not be released until their family is informed.
The good Samaritan, who was on a commercial vessel, alerted the Coast Guard, which dispatched rescue vessels and aircraft to search for more victims.
The survivor told authorities he had left the Bahamas' Bimini islands, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Miami, in a boat with 39 other people on Saturday night, the Coast Guard said in a statement posted online.
According to the survivor, the group's vessel capsized on Sunday morning when it hit rough weather about 45 miles (72 km) east of Fort Pierce Inlet, off Florida's Atlantic coast about midway between Miami and Cape Canaveral, but no one was wearing a life jacket, the Coast Guard said.
The survivor was taken to a hospital for treatment of dehydration and sun exposure.
The accident coincided with a small-craft advisory posted for the area, with steady winds clocked at up to 23 miles (37 km) per hour and 9-foot (3-meter) seas, according to the Coast Guard.
"Their decision to take to the sea is a complicated one. Certainly, the waters in the northern Florida Straits can be quite treacherous," Burdian said. "In cases like this, small vessels, overloaded, inexperienced operators, at night in bad weather can be incredibly dangerous."
Through Wednesday morning, Coast Guard cutter crews, helicopter teams, search planes and a U.S. Navy air crew crisscrossed an area spanning more than 7,500 nautical miles (13,890 km) about the size of Rhode Island, between Bimini and Fort Pierce Inlet, the statement said.
The nationalities of those who were aboard the vessel has yet to be determined, a Coast Guard spokesperson, Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, said.
Incidents of overturned or interdicted vessels crowded with people, many of them Haitians or Cubans seeking to reach the United States, are not uncommon in the waters off Florida.
Last May, 12 Cuban migrants died and eight were rescued after their boat flipped over off Key West, Florida.
At least 557 Cuban migrants in all have been picked up at sea by the Coast Guard since October, in addition to nearly 7,400 Cubans interdicted during the previous five years, according to the agency.
Vessel crossings by Haitian migrants have likewise grown more frequent as the Caribbean nation deals with economic and political crises, as well as gang-related kidnappings. The Coast Guard said it had intercepted at least 159 Haitian nationals this fiscal year.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Miami; additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
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