MIAMI BEACH - Ten people were found clinging to the hull of a small boat that capsized early Wednesday off South Florida, trapping the bodies of four dead women and one survivor in a tiny pocket of air beneath it.
The 15 people appeared to have been making a perilous journey that thousands try each year. Migrants from Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean countries routinely attempt to illegally enter the United States by reaching Florida's coast in overloaded or unseaworthy vessels.
Early Wednesday, one of the survivors called 911 on a cellphone, alerting authorities to their location 7 miles east of Miami.
"Sadly and tragically, we did find four females, adults, underneath the boat that had perished," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Darren Caprara.
The survivor who was found when Coast Guard officials flipped over the boat was suffering from seizures, and he was taken by boat to a Miami Beach hospital, officials said. He was treated and released to federal law enforcement.
The rest of the survivors were in good condition and were taken into custody aboard a Coast Guard vessel while authorities investigated whether they were part of a human smuggling operation. It was not immediately clear whether they would be brought to the United States or sent back to their home countries.
"Well, obviously, 15 people on a boat, transiting in the middle of the night with no life jackets, is a very, very unsafe condition," Caprara said.
Caprara said authorities were working to confirm that the people on the boat were Haitian and Jamaican.
"That's still a lengthy process that involves contacting other countries and doing some investigatory research," Caprara said.
Authorities didn't immediately confirm that those on the boat that capsized Wednesday were migrants fleeing their home countries. However, the circumstances made it seem likely that they were part of a global phenomenon of people taking desperate risks to escape poverty and instability, said David Abraham, who teaches immigration law at the University of Miami School of Law. In a case earlier this month, hundreds of migrants were packed into smugglers' boats that capsized on their way from Africa to Europe.