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Norfolk-based destroyer rescued 26 Cuban migrants near Florida Keys

The USS James E. Williams sails through the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 28, 2019.

GIAN PRABHUDAS/U.S. NAVY

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: March 13, 2019

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — A Norfolk-based destroyer rescued 26 Cubans who were attempting to illegally immigrate to the United States last week when their sailboat became distressed about 48 miles south of the Florida Keys, according to the military.

The USS James E. Williams was conducting routine operations off the coast of Florida on Friday when it received a distress signal from a good Samaritan boater who spotted the 30-foot wooden sailboat having problems, the Coast Guard said. The James E. Williams was about 30 miles away at the time.

Once the destroyer arrived, a small crew was sent over to the vessel in a rigid-hulled inflatable boat to check on the passengers' welfare. The Navy said some of the passengers reported not feeling well and were provided bottled water before they were transferred to a responding Coast Guard vessel.

The Coast Guard said 25 of the Cubans were repatriated to Cuba on Tuesday, while one was transferred to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for further investigation and possible prosecution.

"Illegal migrant ventures on unsafe and ill equipped vessels are not only against the law, but incredibly dangerous," said Capt. Jason Ryan, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard's Seventh District in Miami, in a statement. "It is fortunate that the vessel did not capsize or end in tragedy, as we have seen all too recently in the Florida straits, and we are grateful for the assistance by the good Samaritan and the U.S. Navy in this case."

The sailboat was later sank so it wouldn't be a navigational hazard. The Navy did not specify how it sank the vessel.

"From start to finish, the James E. Williams crew demonstrated top-tier professionalism," said Cmdr. Joe Fals, the destroyer's commanding officer, in a news release.

"They exercised mission command, quickly developing and communicating a solid plan which they smoothly executed. As a result, the boat crew performed extremely well. I couldn’t be prouder of them."

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