NAPLES, Fla. — A family that decided to investigate something that didn't look quite right as storms started rolling in on a boating trip in the Florida Keys rescued three men clinging to a piece of rubber in the Gulf of Mexico.
The men were weak and dehydrated, and their hands and feet were swollen. They couldn’t contain their tears of relief after hitting the deck of boats that rescued them more than 40 miles off the coast of Key West.
“They were really sunburnt,” said James Fitzek, whose family got two of the men aboard his boat July 7. “They were in bad shape.
"They collapsed on the back deck as soon as they got on the boat," Fitzek said. "We were trying to get water into them, get Gatorade into one of the guys going into shock and cover them with blankets.”
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His friend, Capt. Don Hiller of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, took the third man on his boat.
Fitzek and Hiller spent the sunny day with their families and some friends out on the water touring Fort Jefferson, about 65 miles west of Key West, and the Dry Tortugas nearby, grilling and spearfishing before heading back to land. The day was beautiful until it wasn’t, as is the case with Florida summers.
Hiller and Fitzek later learned the men had been out at sea at least four days. The men spoke only Spanish, but Fitzek and Hiller didn’t need to understand their words to know they needed help.
“They were basically on a truck tire,” Fitzek said.
Fitzek and Hiller tried calling the U.S. Coast Guard on their VHF radios but couldn’t get through. They decided not to wait for the Coast Guard and piloted their boats to shore.
“They were so far west, I’m pretty sure they never would have hit Florida,” Hiller said. “I’m not sure anyone would have ever known what happened to them.”
Hiller and Fitzek’s families tended to the men — and some cried in relief with them — the whole way back to land. The sea was choppy, afternoon storms brought lightning and there were “water spouts all over,” Hiller said.
“It was nasty there for a while,” he said.
When the boats reached Coast Guard Sector Key West, one of the migrants was taken to an area hospital for treatment of severe dehydration. Hiller and Fitzek said they learned the men’s boat had exploded after leaving Cuba, and they suffered burns.
The two other men were taken to a Coast Guard cutter and medically evaluated, according to Ensign Karrie Jeffries, a public affairs officer for Coast Guard Sector Key West. One of the men was taken to a hospital for treatment of burns.
The third man never left the cutter and was taken back to Cuba, she said.
The condition of the two men who were taken to the hospital is not known. It was not clear whether they already had been returned to Cuba or if they would be.
The Cuban Adjustment Act essentially allowed Cubans who reached American land to remain in the country legally and become eligible for permanent residency a year later. The first iteration of the policy, enacted in 1966, allowed all Cubans who reached U.S. waters to stay in the country.
In 1995, the Clinton administration changed the policy, which colloquially became known as the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy,” to only allow Cubans who made it to shore to stay in the country.
The Obama administration announced the end of wet-foot, dry-foot in January 2017, making Cubans who come to the U.S. without visas eligible for deportation. It was part of Obama's attempt at normalizing travel and business relations with Cuba; President Trump reintroduced those restrictions in June 2017.
The rescue was an eye-opening moment for Fitzek's family, he said.
“We talked about just what type of situation you would have to be in to set yourself adrift across the ocean to try to find a better life,” he said. “It’s hard for us to imagine. What would it take for you to take that same risk, and at what point would you do that?”
Immigration debates and tensions aside, Fitzek said putting a face to the immigration issue changes things.
“It’s a good reminder that we’re all human and we’re talking about people’s lives,” Fitzek said. “When you see it up close and personal, it just makes it very real.”
Fitzek’s daughter, Hailey, was on the boat with her mom, dad and brother during the rescue. She said she was struck by how much gratitude the men showed during the rescue despite the emotional and physical stress they were under.
“They shook our hands,” said Hailey Fitzek, 18. “To see those people — how much emotion they showed, how grateful and kind they were even though they were so weak. It was a crazy experience.”
Living in conservative Southwest Florida can feel like a “bubble,” but Hailey Fitzek said the rescue made her family grateful for their blessings and humbled because of the plight of people whose lives they can’t fathom.
Hiller, who has worked for the Monroe sheriff’s office for 33 years, grew up in the Keys and remembers the mass emigration of more than 125,000 Cubans to Florida after the Mariel boatlift in 1980. A housing and jobs crisis prompted the Castro regime to allow Cubans who wanted to leave to board boats at the Port of Mariel, about 25 miles west of Havana.
Throughout his law enforcement career, sometimes it seemed like every day he would see or hear of Cuban migrants making it to shore or the side of highways in the Keys, he said. He went on search-and-rescue missions and sometimes recovered the bodies of migrants who died at sea.
Now, he can’t remember the last time he saw or heard of migrants making it to shore.
“It was startling to me that they were coming and how they were coming,” Hiller said. “It’s a hell of a risk.”
The rescue was a team effort, Hiller said. And he was grateful that the Fitzeks were alongside him helping the men.
► January 2017: Mexico deports Cubans; first time since wet foot/dry foot repealed
► January 2017: Obama ends 'wet foot, dry foot' policy for Cubans
“This isn’t politics,” Hiller said. “This is strictly human beings whose lives were in danger. It doesn’t matter if they were on the side of the road or in the water.
"These people were desperate, they needed help, and that was it," the sheriff's captain said. "We loaded them up and made the journey together.”
Follow Alexi C. Cardona on Twitter: @Alexi_Cristina
Photos: Collier family rescues Cuban migrants stranded in sea