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Sole survivor of capsized boat off Florida coast recalls harrowing ordeal of losing his sister and spending days at sea

<i>US Coast Guard</i><br/>Joan Esteban Montoya was the lone survivor from the trip that started in the Bahamas.
US Coast Guard
Joan Esteban Montoya was the lone survivor from the trip that started in the Bahamas.

By Claudia Dominguez and Ana María Mejía, CNN

The sole survivor of a boat that capsized off the coast of Florida last week lost his sister at sea and spent harrowing days fighting to survive, he told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

Colombian national Juan Esteban Montoya, 22, was traveling with his sister Maria Camila Montoya, 18, and about 38 other immigrants from different countries, he told CNN en Espanol.

Montoya chose to make the trip to the US by boat because it was safer than traveling through Mexico and he and his sister wanted to reunite with their US-based mother, who joined him at Monday’s news conference in Fort Pierce, Florida.

He was determined to survive so he could tell his parents what happened to his sister, he said. “It hurts me so, so, so much losing her, because I spent all the energy I could when I didn’t have any, looking for her,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “It was impossible to find her.”

Hours after they left the Bahamas, the boat capsized after its motor stopped working and waves crashed into the vessel filling it with water, he said.

Montoya last saw his sister sinking when the boat overturned.

As time went by, others who were hanging onto the boat would slip beneath the waves after losing strength, Montoya said.

“The lack of food, the lack of water, the lack of rest, starts to affect you more,” he said.

“The solitude was another blow,” he said of eventually becoming the last person remaining. “But I didn’t lose faith.”

Montoya was rescued by a good Samaritan on Tuesday, he said.

“I was face down on the boat when I hear something and felt a wave hit,” Montoya recounted. “A boat was close by, I didn’t wave at them or signal them, they came to me and told me they would help me. They were angels, to be honest.”

The US Coast Guard, which had been searching for survivors, said it was notified by a tug boat captain that he’d rescued a man clinging to a capsized vessel 45 miles east of Fort Pierce Inlet.

After being found, Montoya was taken to a local hospital to be treated for symptoms of dehydration and sun exposure, the Coast Guard said in a press release. Montoya is currently applying for political asylum, according to his lawyer Naimeh Salem.

“These days have been quite difficult, very hard because of the absence of my sister. The more days pass, the more the absence is felt. The pain is greater,” Montoya said. “My heart was split in two and part of it was taken from me.”

USCG searched for additional survivors in an area that stretched from the Bahamas to Cape Canaveral but suspended the search after several days. Only five bodies were recovered. The 25-foot vessel was transporting at least 40 people when it capsized in the Fort Pierce Inlet, authorities said.

People onboard were from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Bahamas and Jamaica, Montoya told CNNe. He also said there was an infant and several young girls who attempted the trip.

While US Coast Guard officials suspect this was a smuggling operation, they did not comment on the nationalities of those onboard. Homeland Security officials are asking for any information that would lead to the arrest and prosecution of those involved in the trip and sinking.

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CNN’s Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.

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