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Lone survivor of capsized human smuggling boat shares experience

39 people died after vessel capsized off the coast of Florida
Survivor of human smuggling operation where 39 people died off Fort Pierce, Jan. 31, 2022
Posted at 11:01 AM, Feb 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-01 11:01:21-05

FORT PIERCE, Fla.  — The sole survivor of a boat that capsized off the coast of Florida during a human smuggling operation shared Monday how he was able to live through the tragedy.

Colombia's government said Friday that the boat survivor was a young Colombian man, identified as Juan Esteban Montoya, traveling with his younger sister.

She was killed when the boat capsized Saturday evening shortly after setting out for Florida from the Bahamas.

Montoya said only a few hours after leaving Bimini last Saturday, the boat's engine stopped.

"For that reason, we ended up on high seas, floating until we started to get impacted by bigger waves. Those waves started to come over the boat, and we started to sink," Montoya said Monday via a translator.

Everyone tried holding on, but Montoya saw his sister go under, along with dozens of others, on board.

The 22-year-old man said in the days after the boat overturned, some of the survivors decided to take their own lives.

"Because of the difficulty we were going through, they passed away. Some let go of the boat, others decided to get off the boat and die, to die by suicide," Montoya said in Spanish. "The lack of food, freshwater, and rest starts to affect you more with making those decisions."

Maria Camile Montoya Caicedo with brother Juan Esteban Montoya
Juan Esteban Montoya with his sister, Maria Camile Montoya Caicedo, who died in the human smuggling operation.

He said mentally and physically. It was hard being alone for days while he clung to the boat.

Montoya survived the ill-fated voyage after he was found hanging onto the overturned vessel by a good Samaritan last week off the coast of Fort Pierce.

"It was something disastrous, and it is something that I do not wish upon anyone," Montoya said. "Do not do the journey this way, especially with family members or loved ones, because you may lose them, just like I did to my sister. It is something very heartbreaking."

A total of 39 people died in the human smuggling operation.

His attorney, Naimeh Salem, said that Montoya had to be hospitalized with an infection after drinking too much salt water.

Salem said Monday her client would ask the U.S. government for asylum to stay in the country and live with his mother, who resides in Texas.

Ryan Hughes and Scott Sutton at WPTV first reported this story.