The sole survivor from a boat believed to be carrying 40 people when it capsized off Florida spoke out for the first time Monday, recalling the moments the vessel went down and describing the heartbreak he felt after losing his younger sister in the tragedy.
Juan Esteban Montoya Caicedo, 22, and his 18-year-old sister, Maria Camila Montoya Caicedo were on the 25-foot boat with 38 others when it capsized some 40 miles off Florida's coast on Jan. 22.
"All the time I was thinking about my sister, that I had to survive so I could tell my parents what had happened to her," Juan Esteban Montoya Caicedo told reporters in Spanish Monday.
A merchant vessel spotted him clinging to the overturned hull of the ship early Tuesday, setting off a massive search by the U.S. Coast Guard that was suspended Thursday night, after five bodies had been recovered.
Caicedo said he and his sister, who were both from Colombia, were joined by people from the Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Haiti and Jamaica on the boat, which authorities said was part of a suspected human smuggling operation.
He said there was at least one baby and several small girls onboard.
Authorities said it's believed the boat capsized not long after leaving for Florida from Bimini in the Bahamas.
Caicedo said the engines on the boat had stopped working as the sea became rough with waves as high as 15 feet. He said the boat started taking on water and eventually capsized, with about 15 people clinging to the hull, including his sister.
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He said everyone was desperately clinging to the boat before his sister and everyone else went underwater.
"When I was the only one left it became much more difficult," Caicedo said. "It was so much harder because my health had already deteriorated and mentally I was not in a good place. The solitude was very difficult."
Caicedo said it had always been his dream to come to the United States and be reunited with his mother.
"He is my miracle," mother Marcia Caicedo told reporters in Spanish Monday. "The loss of my daughter is very big and painful. But faith and hope was what allowed my son to come out alive of this tragedy."
Coast Guard officials believe all of the 34 people still missing didn't survive.
Homeland Security Investigations officials said they are investigating the incident.