By Akilah Johnson & Jean-Paul Renaud
Posted June 8 2005
The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a bright blue vintage taxicab bobbing in the waves 20 miles off Key West Tuesday, marking the third time in two years that Cuban migrants piloted a retrofitted 1950s-era car across the Florida Straits.
At least six people were inside the station wagon. At about 7:30 p.m. two Coast Guard boats pulled alongside the floating jalopy, and Coast Guardsmen passed life jackets to those inside. The incident was broadcast live by South Florida Sun-Sentinel news partner WTVJ-Ch. 6.
Coast Guard officials refused to discuss the incident Tuesday.
“Under U.S. government policy, we cannot discuss migrant interdiction operations until disposition is complete,” said spokeswoman Petty Officer Sandra Bartlett.
Twice before, Cubans took to the open seas in vintage vehicles turned water vessels. A 1951 Chevy truck was intercepted in July 2003, 40 miles off Key West, and a 1959 tail-finned Buick was found in February 2004 10 miles off Marathon. Both the vehicles were sunk by U.S. officials.
A woman who identified herself as a family member of those aboard Tuesday’s floating taxi said relatives had been expecting the group.
Mariana Diaz said her nephew, Rafael Diaz Reyes, was one of the people in the station wagon. She said the family heard from Reyes’ mother earlier today that he had fled Cuba, along with his wife and two children.
“Everyone is really worried because of the whole problem of there being children on board,” said Diaz, of Miami. “Hopefully, this time they won’t go back.”
Diaz said much of Reyes’ family is already in Miami.
Reyes was a passenger in the two other thwarted vehicle-turned-vessel voyages to South Florida, according to family.
The Coast Guard intercepted another group of refugees in a separate incident Tuesday. About 10:15 a.m., a boater spotted a dehydrated refugee group, consisting of four children, and 18 adults in a stalled boat near Key Largo, WTVJ-Ch. 6 reported.
Coast Guard officials said the group appeared to be in good condition and didn’t need to be hospitalized.