MIAMI — Seven members of a U.S. family, including a 4-year-old girl, survived 20 hours at sea by clinging to their capsized boat and a small cooler after their vessel flipped during a fishing trip off the Florida Keys, officials said Monday.
A 79-year-old mother of two of the rescued boaters, Zaida San Jurjo Gonzalez, was missing and presumed drowned.
The other women told rescuers they didn’t have time to grab life jackets for anyone except the girl when two waves suddenly flipped the boat off Long Key in choppy, rainy waters Saturday afternoon, U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Kendra Graves said.
Jorge Alejo Gonzalez and the two other men tried to help his mother, but she went under the water within minutes, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Robert Dube.
“He could not hold onto his mother and she went under,” Dube said.
State wildlife officials identified the other men as Jorge Gonzalez’s uncle, Jose Miguel De Armas, and his sister’s boyfriend, Juglar Riveras.
The boaters quickly drifted apart. The men held onto the boat. The three women and the girl — Jorge Gonzalez’s sister, Elena; his wife, Tomasa Torres Gonzalez; and his uncle’s wife, Yunisleidy Lima Tejada, and their daughter Fabiana — clung to the cooler.
A commercial fisherman saw the capsized boat Sunday morning and rescued the men, Dube said.
The women and girl were soon picked up by the Coast Guard, several miles from where the boat had capsized.
“They were hanging onto the cooler. It was afloat but its main purpose was to keep them together,” Graves said.
Once aboard, the women asked about the men.
“They wanted to know, ’Where are our husbands?”’ Graves said.
The women said they had been fishing from their anchored boat about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) off the Middle Keys when it flipped.
The boaters were wrapped in blankets and treated for shock and hypothermia.
“They were all pretty happy to see each other,” Graves said.
It wasn’t clear if the boaters were aware of an advisory posted early Saturday warning of wind speeds of 23-38 mph (37-61 kph) and seas 7 feet (2.1 metres) or higher as torrential rains poured over the region.
“They shouldn’t have been out there,” Dube said.
The conditions improved by early Sunday. While spending long hours in choppy water would have been difficult, the warm waters off the Keys were survivable, said Bill South, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service.