A large rescue operation continued into Monday night for two men missing after their ramshackle, handmade vessel, which left Cuba about a week ago, broke apart four miles east of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in South Miami-Dade.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, the U.S. Coast Guard and civilians in pleasure crafts, searching the still-warm waters between Sands Key and Turkey Point with boats, helicopters and airplanes, plucked nine men from the water Monday morning.
Two others swam to Elliott Key.
The group, all adult men, told law enforcement officers that they left Cuba between five and 10 days ago on a makeshift raft made of wood and inner tubes, and that it broke into pieces about 10 Sunday night. Several of the men were found clinging to inner tubes.
By late Monday, five of the men were aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Robert Yered, three others who were pulled from the water by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue — two by helicopter hoists — were in area hospitals, one was rescued near Fowey Rocks Light, and two more were in the custody of immigration authorities on Elliott Key.
Coast Guard officials said the search for the two missing men would continue through Monday night, and then the situation would be reevaluated. They believe there is a good chance the missing men can survive through the night because water temperatures remain in the low 80s, with relatively light waves of two or three feet.
“It broke apart, and we’re not sure why it broke apart. Probably because it’s a small craft and a large sea,” said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Hartley. “Water temperatures are pretty warm. There’s a good chance they’re still clinging to some debris.”
Hartley said authorities recovered several inner tubes, which the rescued men said they used as flotation devices for their vessel during the 90-mile trip from Cuba.
“That’s why we don’t believe it was a smuggling operation,” said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss.
Several of the men, if Cuban, will probably be able to remain in the United States because of a 1996 revision to the Cuban Adjustment Act that expedites the legal permanent residency status of Cubans who reach the American shore.
According to Hartley, the Coast Guard was informed of the men in the water shortly after 10 a.m. Monday, then quickly informed Miami and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, which both sent watercraft. They also contacted national parks officials and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which was also helping in the search.
A signal was also sent out to pleasure craft in the area whose operators quickly spotted two of the men swimming without any flotation devices, and pulled them aboard.
The men seemed to be in good condition considering the lengthy, rough voyage through the Florida Straits, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Eric Lowd.
“I don’t know how long they were in the water,” Lowd said, “but they looked pretty good. One of the men said it was long and hot and he was thirsty and cold.”
Officials, still trying to determine where the men began their voyage, said a steady stream of migrants has reached shore this year.
In September, a group of nine rafters came ashore behind the Mar-Azul condominium complex in Key Biscayne.
According to U.S. Border Patrol, 2,059 Cubans were intercepted at sea in the year ending Sept. 30, which was 702 more than the year before. Only 814 Cubans reached shore during the same time period, an increase from the 359 who made it to the United States the previous year.
Most of the Cubans who make it to the United States cross over from Mexico, according to Border Patrol. So far this year, 16,247 Cubans have migrated to the United States through Mexico.
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.