The death toll from a suspected human smuggling boat that capsized in a storm off Florida with 40 people aboard reached five Thursday, as the active search for survivors was set to be suspended, U.S. Coast Guard officials said.
Capt. Jo-Ann F. Burdian announced at a news conference Thursday that four more bodies were found in the previous 24 hours in the search zone, which had expanded to an area the size of the state of Massachusetts.
The death toll from the incident rose to five, with 34 other people still believed to be missing.
Burdian said the active search was set to be suspended at sundown Thursday unless something was found that would extend it.
"It's been a challenging day of operations," Burdian said. "We have saturated the area over and over again. We’ve had good visibility. … We’ve overflown the vessel a number of times. … It does mean we don’t think it’s likely that anyone else has survived."
The accident left a single known survivor and has prompted U.S. authorities to launch a criminal investigation.
The Miami office of Homeland Security Investigations has launched the inquiry, saying the migrants' journey was most certainly part of a human smuggling operation. Under federal law, a smuggler convicted of causing a death is eligible for execution.
“The goal of this investigation is to identify, arrest and prosecute any criminal or criminal organization that organized, facilitated or profited from this doomed venture,” said HSI Miami Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury.
Salisbury declined to give any information on the nationalities of the boat passengers but said investigators consider the lone survivor “a victim right now,” not a suspect. Salisbury appealed to the public for tips to help identify who organized the boat crossing.
“Please help us bring criminals who prey on and victimize the vulnerable migrant community to justice," he said. “We don’t want anybody doing this again. … This is dangerous stuff.”
Burdian said the survivor told rescuers that the boat capsized Saturday evening shortly after sailing from the Bahamas into a storm.
The Coast Guard was alerted Tuesday morning after the crew of a merchant vessel spotted the man sitting alone on the overturned hull of the 25-foot boat.
He was taken to a hospital with symptoms of dehydration and sun exposure and turned over to Homeland Security officials, who said he was conscious and lucid.
Family members identified the man as Juan Esteban Montoya, of Colombia. They said Montoya's 18-year-old sister was also on the boat but did not survive.
Crews have searched around the clock, extrapolating from where the wreck was spotted about 40 miles off Fort Pierce.
"With every moment that passes, it becomes much more dire and more unlikely” that survivors will be found, Burdian said.