Coast Guard rescues immigrants from rafts

Friday, March 26, 2004

LAUDERDALE-BY-THE-SEA, Fla. -- The Coast Guard and beachgoers pulled three Cubans to safety from the treacherous surf Thursday after they were spotted bobbing offshore on rafts made of lashed-together inner tubes. As many as five others were missing from a group that left Cuba for the Florida coast about three days earlier, said deputy fire chief Mark Conn. A Coast Guard diver rescued one of the Cubans, a woman, from a black inner tube connected to three other tubes with white sheets.

She was later hoisted into a helicopter. The two other Cubans, both men, were pulled to shore by people on the beach who were among a crowd of about 100 onlookers.

All three were dehydrated and disoriented from about three days at sea and were taken to the hospital, authorities said.

The Cubans were spotted offshore on two rafts, about a mile apart, amid 6- to 8-foot waves and wind gusts of more than 30 mph.

During the rescue, beachgoers plunged into the water to help one of the Cubans and were joined by a firefighter, according to Jerry McIntee, another firefighter. They battled "an undertow that would pull your clothes off," he said.

Authorities planned to interview the Cubans. Under U.S. law, known as the "wet foot-dry foot" policy, Cuban immigrants who reach dry land are generally allowed to stay in the United States, while those who are intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.

Officials searched for the others who set out on the voyage from Cuba, 90 miles from Florida.

"Trying to make it to the U.S. in this type of vessel is a recipe for disaster," Coast Guard Lt. Tony Russell said.

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