Cuban migrants rescued off Tavernier Key
A Coral Gables attorney helped rescue about 22 Cuban migrants huddled
off an islet in Key Largo during a late-night storm.
Posted on Sun, Oct. 28, 2007
BY ANDREA TORRES
As winds gusted on Tavernier Key early Saturday, Joe Zumpano and an
associate chatted on the porch of the Coral Gables attorney's vacation home.
Then the two men heard faint cries for help coming from the sea.
They soon found themselves helping rescue about 22 Cuban migrants
stranded during a storm on an islet off Key Largo.
The men rushed to a sportfishing boat. It was after midnight. Zumpano,
who's also a master captain U.S. merchant marine, scanned the waters
between mainland and Tavernier Key.
They found the migrants by following the glimpse of a dim light on an
islet, but shallow water prevented them from getting too close.
Zumpano shouted: ''Who are you?'' The huddled crowd replied in Spanish:
''Somos Cubanos'' (``We are Cubans'').
A CHILLING EXPERIENCE
''Their desperation brought chills down my spine,'' said Zumpano.
Some migrants were suffering from dehydration. Zumpano circled the islet
for more than an hour waiting for the Coast Guard.
He felt helpless, but gave them all one bit of good news: He told them
he was a witness to their landing on U.S. soil.
''There was a roaring cheer and I started to cry,'' said Zumpano.
Under the wet-foot/dry-foot policy, Cuban migrants who land on U.S. soil
are typically allowed to remain in the United States. Those apprehended
at sea are repatriated to Cuba.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Barry Bena said they transported the migrants
to the mainland and turned them over to Border Patrol.
''These people to me represent the kind of human suffering I have been
very affected by,'' said Zumpano, whose mother is a Cuban immigrant who
left her homeland in 1960 after Fidel Castro's officers arrested her
father, a government treasurer.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Decades later in 2006, Zumpano represented a woman claiming damages
against Fidel Castro's government for her father's execution. The woman
collected a $23.79 million ruling in frozen Cuban assets.
Zumpano took no credit for being a hero. He says the migrants played the
''Anyone who risks their lives to reach freedom is a hero,'' he said.