MIAMI (CBSMiami) – When a migrant smuggling boat capsized and its 15 occupants were thrown into the dark waters seven miles Southeast of Miami Beach, the Coast Guard threw everything it could into the rescue efforts. The Coast Guard dispatched four boats, a helicopter and a plane. But it wasn’t enough.
What they need – what they really could have used – was sitting tied to a dock at the Port of Miami: A Miami Dade Fire Rescue boat and a crew of specially trained divers.
But when the Coast Guard asked Miami Dade to send their boat and divers to the scene, Miami Dade refused.
“On scene with this capsized vessel it was unclear how many people were missing,” said Coast Guard Commander Darren Caprara.
After rescuing ten people clinging to the vessel the Coast Guard soon discovered there were at least five people missing – possibly trapped underneath the boat. Unfortunately the Coast Guard does not maintain rescue divers.
So the Coast Guard asked Miami Dade to send their boat and divers to the scene to conduct an underwater search.
The request went all the way to the head of the Miami Dade Fire Department – Chief Dave Downey. But the decision was made. No fire boat. And no divers.
Since they couldn’t search under the vessel, the Coast Guard decided to flip the boat over.
“So we effectively re-righted the vessel and then unfortunately and tragically found four bodies, adult females, underneath,” Caprara said. “And then an adult male who somehow had been able to find some sort of air pocket. And we were able to rescue that male.”
It is impossible to know if divers would have been able to save any of the four women before the boat was upended.
In a statement to CBS4 News, Chief Downey said: “In this particular incident I think we sent the best resources we had available.”
Downey noted the department dispatched two helicopters to help in the search.
He also claimed that his divers do not search capsized vessels, saying it was “beyond our scope of what our divers do.”
Several fire rescue divers CBS4 News spoke to, however, directly contradicted the chief’s statement. They cited several instances where Miami Dade rescue divers had gone into submerged boats in the ocean.
So why no fire boat? Miami Dade has tried its best to keep this a secret – but they took the fire boats out of service entirely in November 2011. They did it as a cost saving measure. The fire boat costs $2.5 million a year to operate.
Said Downey: “I don’t have the money.”