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Sole survivor of capsized boat describes ordeal; mom calls him 'my miracle'

“I thought a lot that it was most likely that I was going to die, but I also thought that I had to find strength where I didn’t have it," said Juan Esteban Montoya Caicedo.
Juan Esteban Montoya with his mother, Marcia Giraldo, after he was released from the hospital.
Juan Esteban Montoya with his mother, Marcia Giraldo, after he was released from the hospital.Noticias Telemundo

Marcia Giraldo was finally able to hug her son, Juan Esteban.

“Thank you, God, thank you,” Giraldo said through tears.

Juan Esteban Montoya Caicedo, 22, who's from Colombia, was traveling with his sister, María Camila Montoya Caicedo, from the Bahamas to reunite with their mother in the U.S. The boat they were on capsized on Jan. 22. Of the 40 people on board, according to authorities, only Montoya survived.

He spent three days adrift on the high seas, without food, drink or a life jacket, before being rescued by the Miami Coast Guard, found sitting on the boat's overturned hull.

“He saw how the others were dying around him until he was left alone," his lawyer, Naimeh Salem, said. “He did everything possible to encourage his sister, he called her over and over until she disappeared, just like so many other people disappeared before his eyes. That’s why he’s so traumatized — he doesn’t understand how he was the only survivor."

“It was very exciting to see my mother again after so long," Montoya Caicedo said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo. "It was something that I wanted for a long time, and something that my sister also wanted and unfortunately she could not be there.”

He was physically injured by blows from the boat and the force of the waves. The most enduring marks, however, are to his memory, because, he said, 15 people survived the capsizing with him, including his sister, but he saw them later drown, dragged by the waves.

“I thought a lot that it was most likely that I was going to die, but I also thought that I had to find strength where I didn’t have it because I had to show my mom and dad what had happened in this situation,” Montoya Caicedo said. 

At a Spanish-language news conference later on Monday in Fort Pierce, Montoya Caicedo said there were also Dominicans, Haitians, Bahamians and Jamaicans on the boat.

'Here I have him with me'

“He is my miracle, he's a champion, for everything he overcame in that tragedy, with strength and full of courage,” his mother, who left Colombia eleven years and lives in Texas, told Noticias Telemundo. "Here I have him with me because I love him with all my heart.”

Giraldo said that seeing her son survive was a way of honoring her daughter. “I am able to stand because of him."

The two coyotes or smugglers who were taking the migrants to the U.S. on the boat abandoned them to their fate after the boat capsized. They left on another boat and, although they promised to return, they never came back.

The young man’s emotional reunion with his mother took place after he was temporarily released by immigration authorities, but his status in the U.S. remains uncertain.

Salem, his attorney, explained that Juan's not being detained gives the family hope, and that she intends to do “everything possible” to ensure he's able to stay in the country legally.

“We have several alternatives that we are exploring for Juan," the attorney said.

The incident could be related to a case of human trafficking, which would give the young man a way to fight for legal status in the country. “We know that they [the smugglers] are criminals, that they are unscrupulous people. We know that they are murderers, that's all we can say," the attorney said.

The attorney also warned migrants of the dangers of embarking on these kinds of trips.

Salem said that she's in constant communication with the authorities, “because there was a criminal hand here."  

As for her son's survival, "this is like being born again," Giraldo said, as they honor his sister María Camila's memory.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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