4 more bodies recovered after boat capsizes off Florida coast, 34 remain missing

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Officials plan to suspend the search for survivors Thursday night after a ship capsized over the weekend off the Florida coast, throwing 40 people into the water, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

>> PHOTOS: 5 dead, dozens missing after boat capsizes off Florida coast

Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Miami sector, said crews have recovered a total of five bodies since a commercial mariner found a person clinging to the wreckage of the 25-foot vessel Tuesday morning about 40 miles east of Fort Pierce. The person rescued Tuesday is so far the only known survivor after the boat capsized in inclement weather days earlier.

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“The victims in this case have been in the water since Saturday evening, based on the best information we have,” Burdian said at a news conference Thursday. “Unfortunately, we’ve come to the most difficult time in any search and rescue case, and that is the point at which we decide when to cease actively searching.”

The Coast Guard will suspend search and rescue efforts at sunset Thursday “if we do not receive additional information today that can refine our search or direct us toward additional survivors,” Burdian said.

Federal officials have launched an investigation aimed at identifying, arresting and prosecuting “any criminal or criminal organization that organized, facilitated or profited from this doomed venture,” Tony Salisbury, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, said Thursday. Authorities believe the boat might have been part of a human smuggling operation.

“Please help us bring criminals who prey (on) and victimize the vulnerable migrant community to justice. We don’t want anybody doing this again,” Salisbury said. “This is dangerous stuff. So please, call into the tip line if anybody has any information.”

Anyone with information can contact authorities through the HSI tip line at 866-347-2423.

Officials said the boat that capsized hit inclement weather after leaving Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday evening. As of Thursday afternoon, officials said they had searched an area as large as Massachusetts in hopes of finding other survivors of the incident.

Previously, Burdian said the lone survivor told authorities that no one on board was wearing a life jacket when the boat hit bad weather.

The nationalities of those who remained missing Thursday were not immediately known. Salisbury said investigators were working to piece together that information.