After 20 Hours Adrift, 7 Rescued in Florida Keys

One member of the party is missing and presumed drowned, but the others managed to stay afloat, tiny blips in a vast monotonous expanse of water.

Early Sunday morning, two miles from shore, Seaman Kendra Graves of the Coast Guard and her colleagues got their first sighting of the missing party: a cluster of heads bobbing in the water, with something box-like floating with them. It was a stroke of luck. The three women in the ocean waved wildly and shouted. They had a 4-year-old child with them; all four were wearing life jackets.

“We were pretty excited,” Seaman Graves said. “Of course we were looking, but being that far away from the original first point, it was a surprise.”

The women had been floating for about 20 hours, holding on to a blue cooler for buoyancy. Their rescuers got them on board and wrapped them in blankets.

“They were thanking us over and over,” Seaman Graves said. “But they were very concerned about locating their husbands.”

Their husbands were nearly eight miles away, holding on to a portion of the boat that was not under water. They had lost one person: An 80-year-old woman, the mother of one of the men, had slipped under the water soon after their boat capsized. She is presumed dead. None of the four was wearing a life jacket. The men were rescued about 8 a.m. by a commercial fisherman, who alerted the Coast Guard.

The Florida fish and wildlife commission identified the missing woman as Zaida San Jurjo Gonzalez. It said those rescued were her son, Jorge Alejo Gonzalez, his wife, Tomasa Torres, Elena G. Gonzalez, Juglar Riveras, Jose Miguel De Armas, Yunisleidy Lima Tejada, and Fabiana De Armas Lima, all of South Florida.

The group of family and friends set off Saturday morning from Layton, in the Middle Keys, on the 22-foot boat that belonged to one of the people in the party. The forecast called for heavy rains and powerful winds that day, although it might not have been storming when they set off.

The Florida Keys are not always easy to read, said Master Chief Petty Officer Charles Lindsey of the Coast Guard. “We had high winds and heavy chop that day,” he said. “But the Keys are different. You have to constantly monitor the weather. It could have been beautiful when they got under way and then turned quickly.”

The group dropped anchor not far from Long Key Bridge in the Middle Keys. A squall hit, with winds blowing up to 40 miles per hour and swells of up to 10 feet. Their boat flipped about noon Saturday. The men clung to the boat and the women grabbed hold of the cooler. But the churn of the ocean split them, and the women and child drifted away.

“They were very lucky,” Master Chief Lindsey said. “It’s probably next to impossible to see somebody if you are more than just a couple of hundred yards away.” The cooler was a life-saver. It kept them afloat. “And it made them easier to see,” he said.

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