MIAMI — Searchers racing to find more survivors from an overloaded boat that sank off Florida expanded their target area farther north over the Atlantic on Thursday in the hopes that Haitian migrants who were aboard could still be treading water in the fast-moving Gulf Stream current, the Coast Guard said.
At least eight of the 16 survivors plucked from the ocean Wednesday wore life jackets, and rescuers held out hope others had been wearing vests and were still alive on the warm current.
"We have every reason to believe that if someone is in a life jacket, they should be fine _ they should be alive," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. James Fitton said.
At least nine people died, including a 1-year-old girl, Fitton said. It was not clear how many of the migrants remained missing, although authorities believe about 28 to 35 people were aboard the boat.
Rescuers believe the vessel sank because it hasn't been spotted from the air. The survivors were discovered by chance Wednesday by another boat about 15 miles off the Florida coast off Boynton Beach, about 60 miles north of Miami, the Coast Guard said.
Five survivors were hospitalized and 11 were aboard a Coast Guard cutter, he said. Autopsies were conducted Thursday by the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's office.
Haitian families, some as far away as Washington, D.C., were anxious Thursday for word about relatives believed on board, Haitian church and community leaders said.
Officials were interviewing five of the survivors, said Jorge Roig, the Port Everglades Port Director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Roig said it was too early to say whether they would be returned to Haiti.
"We are looking after their safeguarding first, to be sure that their health is taken care of, and then we will interview the individuals and listen to their individual cases," he said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it was investigating whether this was a criminal case of immigrant smuggling or if any other criminal activity was involved. The agency urged anyone with information to call a tip line.
Fear about revealing their own illegal status kept some family from notifying authorities that their relatives may be among the dead or missing, said Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition in Miami.
Since October, the Coast Guard has stopped 1,377 Haitians from trying to reach the U.S., an increase from 972 during the same seven-month period last year. Four tropical storms and hurricanes battered the Western Hemisphere's poorest country last year, killing 793 people, crippling agriculture and causing $1 billion in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads.
Federal authorities have said Caribbean migrants are increasingly trying to reach U.S. shores from the Bahamas. It's unknown how many perish.
Geraldene Lubin of Miami said she believed her cousin was among the migrants who left the Bahamas sometime Tuesday. That was the last time her cousin, Gibson Jean-Louis, had called his wife in Orlando. Another relative in the Bahamas called Wednesday to say Jean-Louis was on a boat that departed Tuesday.
Lubin, 22, said she was sleepless, wondering if her cousin might be adrift, in U.S. custody or worse. None of the survivors' or victims' identities has been released.
Jean-Louis knew the risks, having made the sea voyage from Haiti to the U.S. once before as a teenager, even after his mother died on a similar journey. He paid the price _ deported more than a year ago, despite having a wife and a toddler who were both U.S. citizens, the cousin said.
"Anybody who had the opportunity to get in a boat and try to come to the U.S. would try to do it because of the way things are in Haiti," Lubin said. "He's a father and a husband now. If he feels like he had to do it, then it's something that he had to do."
U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet A. Sanderson urged Haitians to reconsider the trips as a means of escaping their country's oppressive poverty.
"I would like to say to any Haitian contemplating this dangerous trip: Please do not lose hope, and do not abandon your country," she said.
The survivors in Florida likely face deportation.
Illegal migrants from Haiti are usually deported, a sore point for Miami's Haitian-American community because Cuban migrants who reach U.S. shores are allowed to stay under the U.S. government policy sometimes called "wet foot/dry foot." Cubans interdicted at sea are usually returned to the communist island.
(This version CORRECTS spelling of Jorge Roig's first name and quote.)