Posted on Tue, Nov. 29, 2005
Zenith’s crew rescues a 7-year-old Cuban girl and her family
BY LUISA YANEZ
More than a thousand Thanksgiving holiday revelers cruising within view of Cuba had to make an unexpected stop over the weekend to rescue 10 migrants from a 15-foot boat foundering in the Florida Straits, passengers said Monday.
Among the migrants the crew of the Zenith plucked from the sea Sunday was a young girl named Jennifer.
The 7-year-old won the hearts of passengers during her 10 hours on board the ship, owned by the Miami-based Celebrity Cruises.
But for the girl and her family, the upgrade from a boat powered largely by homemade oars to the luxury liner was brief.
The seven men and two women in the group were taken off the cruise ship at about 11 p.m. by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, where they remained Monday, Petty Officer Dana Warr said. Their names have not been released, and their relatives have not come forward.
The group was being questioned by immigration authorities who will determine whether they will be repatriated or eventually allowed to resettle in a third country.
Meanwhile, the Zenith’s cruise ended at the Port of Miami-Dade Monday. But for some passengers, witnessing the drama unique to South Florida left an impression.
‘‘You know, we were in this behemoth of a ship, and they were in this tiny boat with a roof on it, bobbing back and forth, and as they waved at us, you could see real desperation,’’ said passenger Steve Wright, an Ohio native, who works for a Miami city commissioner.
‘‘How do people do that?’’ said Wright, who spotted the group through the lens of his camera.
Another passenger, Cuban-born Joel Villa, a senior systems analyst for Knight Ridder, which owns The Herald, was on the five-day cruise with his family.
Villa, who came to the United States when he was 12, knows about the endless stream of Cubans trying to reach U.S. soil. ‘‘You hear about these refugees, but you don’t get to see it up close like this,’’ Villa said.
Knowing a child was among the migrants touched Villa. ‘‘I have an 8-year-old son,’’ he said.
Some of the other 1,300 passengers on board went to meet the young girl in the cabin the captain provided for the migrants.
Villa said when the Cuban girl was escorted off the ship, passengers yelled: ``Goodbye, Jennifer!’‘
Some unaware of the U.S. wet-foot, dry-foot policy for Cuban migrants may have envisioned a happy ending: The girl and her family were headed to Miami. Villa explained the reality to some.
‘‘Living in Miami, I knew that when the Coast Guard came, that meant they were probably being sent back,’’ Villa said. Only those who reach land are allowed to stay.
The unscheduled excitement for the Zenith, which left Miami Thursday headed for Key West and Cozumel, began as the ship passed near Cuba’s western coast, said Lynn Martenstein, spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean Cruises, which owns Celebrity.
‘‘I could see some rolling mountains,’’ Villa said of his cloudy glimpse of Cuba just before the 12:45 p.m. sighting of the migrants rowing in rough waters.
Wright was on deck shooting photos of a tiny speck in the water out in the distance. He enlarged the picture and saw people waving from a boat with a canopy. He ran to alert the crew.
‘‘A small boat in obvious distress was spotted,’’ Martenstein said.
Zenith’s captain, Michael Margaritis, made the decision to shut the engines and turn back to help. An announcement was made to the passengers that the ship was making a sea rescue. Hundreds of passengers lined up for a look-see.
Once on board, the migrants were given food, clothes and medical attention, Martenstein said. The crew then notified the Coast Guard, as is required.
Monday, Wright and Villa were still thinking of the migrants and their fate.
‘‘I’m just glad they’re OK,’’ Wright said.
Villa wanted to know: ``Have they been sent back to Cuba yet?’‘