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7 rescued 20 hours after being tossed into choppy seas

Seven people treaded water in choppy seas for 20 hours before being rescued off the Florida Keys, the U.S. Coast Guard said. An 80-year-old woman drowned.
Image: Seaman Kendra Graves, right, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Femia assist EMS personnel in Marathon, Fla., with one of seven boaters rescued after treading water for around 20 hours after the boat capsized and sank.
Coast Guard Seaman Kendra Graves, right, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Femia help one of the seven boaters rescued Sunday after treading water for around 20 hours.AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Seven members of a South Florida family, including a 4-year-old girl, survived 20 hours at sea by clinging to their capsized boat and a small blue cooler after their vessel flipped during a fishing trip off the Florida Keys, officials said Monday.

A 79-year-old woman went under the water and never resurfaced.

Three other women on board told rescuers they didn't have time to grab life jackets for anyone except the girl when two waves suddenly flipped the boat off Long Key in choppy, rainy waters Saturday afternoon, Seaman Kendra Graves said.

Three men on board tried to help the 79-year-old woman, but she went under the water within minutes of the 22-foot-long boat capsizing, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Robert Dube.

"She was one of men's mother — he could not hold onto his mother and she went under," Dube said.

At some point, the boaters drifted apart — three women and the girl hanging on to the cooler; three men holding on to the boat.

A commercial fisherman spotted the capsized boat Sunday morning, Dube said, and rescued the men clinging to its bow. The women and girl were soon picked up by the Coast Guard, several miles from where the boat had capsized.

The group of women started waving and yelling for help when they saw the Coast Guard vessel, Graves said.

"They were hanging onto the cooler. It was afloat but its main purpose was to keep them together," Graves said.

Once aboard, the women asked about the men.

"They wanted to know, 'Where are our husbands?'" Graves said.

The surviving women were identified as Yunisleidy Lima Tejada and her 4-year-old daughter Fabiana, along with Elena Gonzalez and her sister-in-law Tomasa Torres Gonzalez.

The men were identified as Jorge Alejo Gonzalez, Juglar Riveras and Jose Miguel De Armas.

Zaida San Jurjo Gonzalez, 79, was mother of Jorge and Elena Gonzalez.

The survivors were taken to a port, where dock hand Wayne Crosby that the 4-year-old girl "wouldn't stop crying. She was spooked and dehydrated."

The girl suffered mild hypothermia but the others reported no medical issues other than exhaustion, Ameen told the Orlando Sentinel .

Four of the survivors were taken to Fishermen's Community Hospital in Marathon on Sunday and later released.

"Treading water just for one hour is challenging to say the least, but when the will to live kicks in human beings can do amazing things," Ameen told the newspaper.

The boaters had left Layton, in the Middle Keys, to go fishing early Saturday, Dube said. The women said they had been fishing from their anchored boat about 3.5 miles off the Middle Keys when the boat flipped.

The Coast Guard met the commercial fishing boat to bring the men ashore for medical attention. The boaters were wrapped in blankets and treated for shock and hypothermia.

"They were all pretty happy to see each other," Graves said.

It wasn't clear if the boaters were aware of a small craft advisory that had been posted early Saturday warning of wind speeds of 23-38 mph and seas 7 feet or higher as torrential rains poured over the Keys and South Florida.

"They shouldn't have been out there," Dube said. "It was nasty from the get-go."

The conditions improved by early Sunday, and while spending long hours in choppy water would have been difficult, the warm waters off the Keys were survivable, said Bill South, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West.