- Associated Press - Monday, October 10, 2011

MIAMI — Seven people, including a 4-year-old girl, survived 20 hours at sea by clinging to their capsized boat and a small cooler after their vessel flipped during a fishing trip off the Florida Keys, officials said Monday.

An 80-year-old woman, the mother of one of the men aboard, is missing and presumed drowned.

Three other women on board told rescuers they didn’t have time to grab life jackets for anyone except the girl when two waves suddenly flipped the boat off Long Key in choppy, rainy waters Saturday afternoon, U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Kendra Graves said.

Three men on board tried to help the 80-year-old woman, but she went under the water within minutes of the boat capsizing, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Robert Dube.

“She was one of the men’s mother. He could not hold onto his mother and she went under,” Dube said.

The boaters drifted apart, with three women and the girl hanging on to the cooler and the three men holding on to the boat.

A commercial fisherman saw the capsized boat Sunday morning and rescued the men clinging to its bow, Dube said. The women and girl were soon picked up by the Coast Guard, several miles (kilometers) from where the boat had capsized.

“They were hanging onto the cooler. It was afloat but its main purpose was to keep them together,” Graves said.

Once aboard, the women asked about the men.

“They wanted to know, ‘Where are our husbands?’” Graves said.

The identities and conditions of the survivors had not been released as of Monday afternoon.

“They definitely weren’t migrants trying to reach shore,” Coast Guard Master Chief Chuck Lindsey said. The waters are popular with people trying to make their way from Cuba to the United States.

The women told rescuers they had been fishing from their anchored boat about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) off the Middle Keys when the boat flipped.

“They said two waves and it was over, it happened so quickly,” Graves said.

The boaters were treated for shock and hypothermia. The child and a couple of other boaters were taken to Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon. Calls to the hospital early Monday were not immediately returned.

It wasn’t clear if the boaters were aware of a small craft advisory that had been posted early Saturday warning of wind speeds of 23-38 mph (37-61 kph) and seas 7 feet (2.1 meters) or higher as torrential rains poured over the Keys and South Florida.

“They shouldn’t have been out there,” Dube said.

The conditions improved by early Sunday, and while spending long hours in choppy water would have been difficult, the warm waters off the Keys were survivable, said Bill South, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West.

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