23 Cuban nationals cleared for expedited removal, no evidence of human smuggling

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MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — UPDATE (4/16 12:30pm): The 23 Cuban nationals rescued by the Carnival Fantasy are being processed for expedited removal from the U.S., that’s according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has issued a press release.

The men were adrift on a disabled vessel about 100 miles north of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Gulf. They were spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard, and transfered to the Fantasy.

USCBP says they questioned the men, but after not finding any evidence of human smuggling, they were cleared for expedited removal.

The castaways are being held by the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office in the meantime.

This is the press release from USCBP:

AMO vessel

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) received 23 Cuban nationals rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Gulf of Mexico more than 100 miles north of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico on Sunday.

The individuals had been adrift for three days aboard a disabled sports fisher before being found by the Coast Guard and transferred to the Carnival Cruise Line Fantasy.  CBP was notified of the disabled boat, and an Air and Marine Operations (AMO) vessel accompanied the cruise ship to the Port of Mobile, arriving at approximately 10 a.m. Monday morning and met by CBP Mobile officers, U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agents, Homeland Security Investigations, (HSI), Coast Guard Investigations, and the FBI.

All 23 individuals were transferred to the USBP station in Mobile for questioning by HSI and the Border Enforcement Security Task Force. The interviewers determined the castaways to be Cuban nationals, but there was no evidence of human smuggling so they were processed for expedited removal and are being held in the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, pending removal. The incident remains under investigation.

The Area Port of Mobile is one of three Area Ports under CBP Office of Field Operations, New Orleans, LA, along with Area Port of Memphis and the Area Port of New Orleans, and oversees ports of entry in the states of Mississippi and Alabama. CBP New Orleans oversees 18 Ports of Entry in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas with a domestic contribution of more than $200 Billion to the U.S. economy. To keep up with the latest news at CBP New Orleans, visit our Twitter page at @CBPSoutheast.

UPDATE (04/15 12:30pm):  Amateur video shows men being led from the Carnival Fantasy in handcuffs into People into Customs and Border Protection vans.

Passengers aboard the Carnival Fantasy got to witness a rescue early Sunday morning when the ship changed course to answer a boat in distress call. 

It was supposed to be a relaxing cruise but turned into a rescue mission. The Carnival Fantasy answered a distress call at sea, just three days after it left the port here in Mobile.  

The fantasy is on its way back now from Mexico, with a couple dozen more passengers than they left with. News 5 spoke with those still on board, who tell us this vacation is nothing like they expected.

“We were reeling and rocking all night long last night,” said Sherry Dean, a Carnival Fantasy passenger. 

A rocky night on the open sea turned into a dramatic morning. “This is my first cruise. So it scared me to death,” said Dean.

Dean spoke to us while on board the Carnival Fantasy. She and her former classmates just left Cozumel and were heading back to Mobile when the captain made an announcement.

“He said there was a ship in distress, first we thought it was ours, but then come to find out it was another one,” said Dean.

Marty and Shirley Fillingim shared photos of the boat with News 5. According to the couple, the ship was making its way back to port in Mobile when it turned back south sometime early Sunday morning. Marty says he noticed the course change around 5 a.m. 

The captain of the Fantasy made an announcement to passengers around 7:00 am Sunday morning, saying the ship was answering a distress call. 

The Fantasy made it to the boat in distress around 9:00 am.

“We thought it was another cruise ship that they were saying was in distress,” said Dean. 

What they found, a small boat, packed with people.

“Naturally, we were expecting a larger ship, that’s where your mind first goes, but to see that small of a boat in open water like that, with that many people on it was just something we were not expecting,” Marty told News 5.

The boat was carrying 23 people, the majority of them, Cuban nationals. 

“I counted about 20-21 from what I could see,” said Dean.

They set off from Cuba to Mexico before their boat lost power. After drifting for nearly three days, another boat noticed their predicament and took them aboard his sports fisher vessel. 

But, that boat’s engines malfunctioned, too. Now the captain and 22 others were adrift, again. Three more days passed until the Carnival Fantasy came to their rescue. 

“I was just glad that they were ok. That nobody was hurt that was on the boat,” said Dean.

A vacation onboard a cruise ship, turned into a mission with a happy ending. 

“It will be one for the storybook, for sure,” said Dean.

The boat will dock back in Mobile the morning of Monday, April 15. The 23 people will be transferred to Customs and Border Protection in Mobile on Tuesday morning. 

Carnival Cruise released this statement to News 5: 

Earlier today Carnival Fantasy responded to a distress call and request for assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard as the ship was returning to Mobile. We can confirm that our crew was involved in a rescue at sea involving more than 20 people and we are now working closely with federal authorities.

The Coast Guard released the following information on the incident: 

The Coast Guard and the crew of the cruise ship Carnival Fantasy rescued 23 individuals on the high seas, 130 nautical miles off the Yucatan Peninsula, Sunday.

The Eighth Coast Guard District and Seventh Coast Guard District command centers received a report at 1:15 a.m. from a Cuban national stating his brother and 22 other individuals were adrift aboard a disabled sports fisher. It was reported that 22 Cuban nationals started their voyage from Cuba to Mexico on a wooden boat before losing power and becoming adrift for three days. They were noticed by a Cuban-Mexican national who took all 22 individuals aboard his sports fisher vessel. The boater’s engines reportedly malfunctioned and the 23 people became adrift for an additional three days.

Watchstanders alerted the cruise ship Carnival Fantasy and directed the launch of a Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater HC-130 Hercules aircrew at 12:50 a.m. to search two reported areas. With no signs of distress and a need to refuel the HC-130 returned to base.

A Coast Guard Air Station Miami HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircrew launched to relieve the Hercules aircrew to search a third location, locating the vessel with the individuals at 8:40 a.m.

The Carnival Fantasy arrived on scene at and brought the individuals on board at 10:47 a.m.

Two individuals had minor medical issues that were treated by the cruise ship’s medical staff.

The 23 individuals will be transferred to Customs and Border Protection and Coast Guard Investigative Services in Mobile, Alabama, Tuesday morning.

For questions on the status of the individuals please contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection at (504) 670-2284.

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