MIAMI (CBSMiami) – CBS4 went along for the ride as a group of women and men of the US Coast Guard got an early start climbing on board an HC-1-44 aircraft from Opa-Locka, spending hours in the air.
Lt. Katrina Prout led the mission to look for migrants in the waters off the Florida Straits.
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“We’re all humans at the end of the day and our fellow human beings are willing to put themselves in that condition, packed so tightly on a boat, I think few of us in the United States could imagine doing that and what those conditions are like,” said Lt. Prout.
It didn’t take long before radar showed a small boat about 25 miles Southeast of Marathon.
“Looks like it’s made out of metal siding, some wood and either an umbrella or parachute as a sail,” Lt. Prout noticed.
Mission system operators Shawn Garza and Wilfredo Gomez discovered those migrants on their radar screens.
“It’s looking for a needle in a haystack essentially and it’s hard to find what we’re looking for sometimes,” Garza said.
In the Florida Straits, the Coast Guard picked up 49 Cuban migrants just last weekend alone.
So far, in fiscal 2022, 1,546 Cuban migrants have been interdicted at sea, that’s up from 838 the year before. There are even more Haitian migrants. So far, this fiscal year, 3,897 have been interdicted, compared to 1,527 in all of fiscal 2021.
It’s not the first time Gomez has spotted people in dire need. Back in February, he had to act fast.
“We saw a boat almost fully submerged and there were ten people on that boat and they were all like halfway through with water,” Gomez said. With the sea the way it was, they were going to die,” he said.
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Gomez and the others know from experience that seconds count.
“It’s nice to know that, ‘Hey, maybe I can make a difference, maybe I can find this person, maybe I can help them out,” said Lt. Hannah Boyce, copilot.
“Stuff happens all the time and you can’t really do anything about it, but if you can put yourself in a place where you can, it gives you a little bit of hope,” she said.
Sometimes during the flight, they open up the back hatch of the aircraft either to get a better look at something down below or send down life-saving equipment.
On this flight, Drop Master Joshua Shirley is taking a closer look at Cay Sal, a lonely island in the Straits.
He finds no sign of castaways, just a wrecked boat that’s been there a while. But that’s not always the case and depending what they find, sometimes the crew has to improvise.
He remembers a specific instance when he was not on a rescue mission but came across people in need. “We didn’t have enough in the survival equipment we bring on board. So, we loaded a parachute survival bag full of our own like, water, food, what not, threw it down to them.”
For the crew, it’s all in a day’s work and while their awesome responsibility is always top of mind, they have little reminders never far from sight in the cockpit to boost spirits when the job gets tough, small tropical umbrellas.
“This can be heavy stuff,” Lt. Boyce said. “We call them our little “morale umbrellas.” They’re tropical, just reminders to maybe have some fun in the cockpit,” she laughed.
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While this crew does everything it can to save lives, the Coast Guard urges families to not encourage loved ones to take to the sea on what could be a deadly journey.