Four bodies found in water off Hollywood beach; Coast Guard searching area

Four dead men found floating in the ocean off Hollywood on Sunday prompted an all-day, all-night search for more bodies and possibly even survivors.

U.S. Coast Guard officials said they're fairly certain there are more bodies at sea — at least three more bodies were reported to be seen by Coast Guard personnel, but vanished. The agency planned to scan the dark waters overnight by boat, and bring in reinforcements, including aircraft, at Monday morning's first light.

The case amounted to a mystery at sea. Those who died had no identification on them, there was no identification found floating in the waters with them, and if they were traveling on a boat or raft, it was not found.

"We don't know who they are and how they perished," said Michael Mullen, the Coast Guard command duty officer in Miami. "They could be from a Cuban migrant venture that didn't go well. But that is only speculation."

Mullen said the bodies, recovered about 20 miles east of Hollywood in the Atlantic Ocean, were "in a badly decomposing state.'' Debris was found nearby, but it was not clear whether it was related to the bodies, he said.

The four bodies were taken to shore in southern Broward County, where the Broward Medical Examiner's Office took custody. Medical examiner staff plan to start an investigation Monday into their identities, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Stanley Pierre in Miami.

A person the Coast Guard dubbed a "good Samaritan'' alerted the agency to the morbid scene, calling to report the sighting of two bodies about 10 a.m. Sunday, Mullen said. A Coast Guard Station Fort Lauderdale crew responded and located a third body. The fourth body was recovered about two miles east of the other three, officials said.

Pierre said Coast Guard personnel flying over the site spotted seven bodies, but three couldn't be found when the boat arrived at the scene.

"We're pretty confident there's more out there,'' he said. "That's why we're continuing our searches.''

He and other coast Guard personnel said the agency isn't ruling out the possibility of survivors.

Several Coast Guard vessels were sent to the area.

The initial search area extended from just south of Miami to West Palm Beach, an expanse 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, officials said. By day's end, the search area had expanded from about 13 miles off Key Biscayne to about 40 miles off the Fort Pierce Inlet, 113 nautical miles to the north, said Pierre.

Taking part in the search were a Coast Guard helicopter, an HC-144 surveillance airplane from the Coast Guard's Opa-locka base, two small boats from Station Fort Lauderdale and the 87-foot cutter Dolphin out of Miami Beach, officials said. Later in the day, an HC-130 aircraft out of Clearwater joined, and the two small boats and the HC-144 departed.

"[Overnight] we might just have a patrol boat,'' said Pierre. "In the morning, we'll continue with an aggressive surface and air search.''

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is also investigating, the Coast Guard said.

The number of Cubans attempting to cross the Florida Straits and land is the U.S. in up sharply this year, according to Coast Guard officials. In the past 11 months, the Coast Guard's 7th District estimates that 3,095 Cubans and 4,506 Haitians have attempted to migrate illegally via the sea.

Those numbers represent the total of at-sea interdictions, landings and disruptions in the Florida Straits, the Caribbean and Atlantic, according to the Coast Guard.

Migrants stopped at sea are taken aboard Coast Guard cutters and returned to their home countries.

Cubans who do make it to shore are permitted to stay under the U.S. government so-called "wet foot-dry-foot" immigration policy adopted by the Clinton administration.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad