MIAMI (AP) — A raft carrying Cuban migrants broke apart a few miles from Miami, leaving survivors clinging to debris for hours in the night. Ten were rescued or managed to swim to shore while three remained missing Monday afternoon.
The U.S. Coast Guard received a report that several people were in the water and holding on to inner tubes and Styrofoam four miles east of Sands Key in Miami's Biscayne Bay shortly after 10 a.m.
Two pleasure crafts responded to an alert issued by authorities and rescued five of the migrants. Three more were plucked from the water by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.
Firefighter Michael Perez said two men were hanging on to pieces of foam and appeared to be getting weak when his helicopter arrived on the scene. He saw a shark nearby and quickly lowered a basket into the water.
The men jumped in and Perez hoisted them into the chopper.
"Water," the men begged.
Perez said the migrants described being at sea for 10 days aboard a homemade raft. The vessel began taking in water before it broke apart Sunday night, they said.
"When the raft parted they all clung to whatever they could," Commander Richard Hartley said.
The third person found by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue was in an inner-tube and pulled cold and shaking aboard a second chopper. All three migrants rescued by helicopter appeared to be suffering from dehydration and were airlifted to Miami hospitals. No information on their conditions was released.
Two more men from the raft were found after they swam to Elliott Key, just south of Sands Key. They were taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol for processing and were expected to be permitted to remain in the U.S.
Under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cuban migrants who reach U.S. shores are generally allowed to stay, while those who are caught at sea are returned.
Despite the extended amount of time in the water, Hartley said the three rafters still missing were in warm water and he was optimistic they would be found alive.
"There's a good chance they are still clinging to some debris," he said. "We are doing everything we can to find these people."
There has been a significant increase over the last year in the number of Cubans attempting to reach the U.S. by sea. At least 3,722 were intercepted at sea or made it to shore in the last fiscal year, a 75 percent increase.
Most Cuban migrants who flee by sea leave on rafts cobbled together from metal, wood and Styrofoam and powered by a makeshift motor. Scholars estimate one in four migrants do not survive the journey.
"This is a very dangerous thing to attempt," Hartley said. "Please don't try it."
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