By Tina Burnside and Jason Hanna, CNN
The US Coast Guard has recovered a body during a search for 39 people whose vessel capsized over the weekend off Florida’s Atlantic coast, the service said Wednesday.
The body was being brought to Fort Pierce, Florida, for identification, Coast Guard Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian said at a news conference in Florida.
The Coast Guard said it has been searching the waters since Tuesday morning, after receiving a report from someone saying he had rescued a man clinging to a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce Inlet.
The Coast Guard said it suspects this was a human smuggling venture.
The rescued person told authorities that he had left Bimini, in the Bahamas, in a boat with 39 others on Saturday night, and that they encountered severe weather, causing the boat to capsize.
According to the survivor, no one on board the vessel was wearing a life jacket, the Coast Guard said.
The survivor was in stable condition, and was being questioned by US Homeland Security officials, Burdian said.
‘We had to do something to help’
The capsized boat and survivor were found by a Signet Corporation tug boat, according to CNN affiliate WJAX in Jacksonville.
“We spotted an object, and it looked odd,” boat captain Ryan Elwin told the station. “Once we got closer, we realized it was a boat that was capsized.”
Then they saw the man who was clinging to the hull.
“We could see he was very weak, you know, he could barely hold on,” Elwin said. “First thing we knew we had to do, we had to do something to help that person.”
He said the tug boat was supposed to be on a different path but had adjusted its course for another ship.
“It’s God’s grace, put us right on top of him,” the captain said.
Search area as big as New Jersey
The search has involved Coast Guard cutters and aircraft, Navy aircraft and other assets from partner agencies, Burdian said.
Searchers have focused attention on two debris fields in hopes of finding survivors. The situation for any survivors grows more dire with time, she said.
“The longer they remain in the water, without food, without water, exposed to the marine environment … every moment that passes, it becomes much more dire and unlikely that anyone could survive in those conditions,” she said.
An area of ocean about the size of New Jersey has been searched, Burdian said Wednesday.
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