June 24, 2023 -BBC News –They were telling stories, laughing. They had set course for the United States from Havana at 03:00 on 16 November 2022. By dawn they were 30 miles off the Cuban coast.
The eight-passenger fishing boat was overloaded: 20 people were on board, among them four children under the age of seven and two teenagers.
Despite the weight, the boat was moving fast. But as the wind picked up, it started to take on water.
“It was a matter of seconds. A wrong turn of the helm, with a wave coming from the front. It came over the bow of the boat, sinking it instantly,” says Alexander, one of only two survivors.
“At the speed it was going, it went down like a torpedo. There was no time for anything.”
Alexander was sitting in the stern and managed to jump off just before it sank.
He saw the boat disappear into the darkness of the ocean. The waters of the Florida Straits are more than a mile deep.
The adults surfaced, but the youngest children, who had been in the boat’s cabin, never did.
Their mothers were screaming.
One boy was briefly kept afloat by a man who placed the child on his shoulders, “but it’s impossible to stay afloat with a person on top of you”, recalls Alexander.
Alexander had a compass and tried to encourage the adults – all of whom were trying to keep afloat in the Caribbean Sea – to swim in the direction of land. But those who had lost their children did not want to stray from the place where the boat had sunk. Eventually, the group separated.
By nightfall, Alexander had lost sight of the rest. Rather than continue swimming, he decided to let the current carry him, hoping that would give him a better chance of being found by a ship, which may also be following the current.
He was adrift for two days and two nights before he was rescued by Cuban migrants aboard another boat.
Yet this second heavily overloaded vessel would also sink just hours later.
This time, Alexander grabbed a plastic box to help him stay afloat.
“The waves were [high as] mountains,” he recalls.
Overnight, he started hallucinating. Imagining he had reached an island, he let go of the box and almost drowned.
He had lost all hope of rescue when a merchant ship spotted him at around 10:00 the next morning and called the US Coast Guard.
He and eight other survivors from the second sunken boat were fished from the sea alive. Alexander, who is in his thirties, was so exhausted he was unable to walk or eat for days.