A brutal storm with winds of more than 60 miles an hour blasted this area today, heightening fears for the safety of small vessels taking part in the boat lift of refugees from Cuba.
U.S. Coast Guard rescue teams, augumented on presidential order because of concerns for safety of the flotilla, fished at least 14 persons from a turbulent sea with eight-foot waves.
While terror swept the Florida straits, grief and fright among volunteer workers on shore produced anguished cries and sent women to their knees praying for those still at sea.
In Washington, Vice President Mondale issued a statement saying President Carter had ordered the Coast Guard and Navy to help those caught in the storm. Mondale also denounced Cuban President Fidel Castro for breaking a "commitment . . . to help with an orderly, prompt and humane evacuation."
White House officials also accused the Cuban government of refusing to cooperate with Coast Guard attempts to rescue stranded vessels.
Commander Sam Dennis, head of the Coast Guard's Key West group, said there was no known loss of life, but he and other officials described a scene of confusion among the hundreds of private and commercial boats, and expressed fear for the refugees.
"With a 20-foot boat, you're in trouble, deep trouble, even if you know what you're doing," he said. He said there is "a very severe probability of loss of life.'
Commander Dennis said the Coast Guard went on 49 separate missions as a result of the storm. He said 14 disabled vessels were being towed to port this evening. Trouble in the water has sent Coast Guard crews on 150 search-and-rescue operations since last Wednesday morning.
"There is utter chaos on Channel 16 the marine emergency radio channel, with people using it for conversations and chit-chat and refusing to get off even when we tell them we are trying to save drowning people," Dennis said.
"It is a horrendous problem, compounded by the 1,000 boats that are taking part in this."
Key West port director Frank Vilez said: "This is the kind of storm we all prayed would not come through with those boats. Some of them [are] only 16 or 18 feet long, with outboard motors. They stand no chance whatsoever."
On orders from Coast Guard headquarters, units have been brought from as far away as New England to help patrol the 90-mile span between here and Cuba. Three helicopters and a dozen or more rescue cutters and launches are being used by the Coast Guard. More thunderstorms and strong winds are expected during the next few days.
Responding to distress calls from a small boat about 25 miles off Cuba, the Coast Guard cutter Diligence today found a capsized pleasure boat and a life preserver floating nearby.
It was not known if the unidentified 24-foot vessel's occupants were lost or picked up by another boat. The Diligence, with assistance from Cuban patrols, later searched in vain for a boat with 200 passengers that were reported to be sinking.
Officials here said the Diligence and a C130 search plane could find no sign of the vessel in the distress area, about 15 miles from the Cuban port of Mariel, where refugees were boarding boats from the United States.
One of the men pulled to safety today, Hector Gonzalez of Miami, said waves of 15 feet had swamped his disabled 25-foot boat as he made his way toward Cuba.
Gonzalez, his brother Arturo and Eduardo Robaina were headed to Mariel to pick up relatives. Hector Gonzalez said that if the Coast Guard returned his boat, he would try again. "If I don't look for my relatives, nobody else will," he said. "I'm going to get my family even if it means I drown."
Officials at the Coast Guard station here said that the desperation of Cuban exiles eager to pick up kin in Cuba has created unprecedented dangers.
Many of the boats in the flotilla are considered unseaworthy. Many are manned by persons with no sailing experience, using no radios or charts.
Officials told of boats navigating aimlessly in circles, running out of fuel and then placing distress calls. Others tagged along with vessels that seemed to know where they were going.
One group of Cuba-bound vessels fell in line-behind a Coast Guard cutter, only to discover it was headed for Key West. Another group destined for Cuba traveled some distance before realizing the fishing boat it was following was headed for Miami.
The storm hit shortly after 11 a.m. today, after several hundred more refugees had come ashore for immigration and customs processing.
Powerful winds ripped massive trees here out by the roots. Coconuts bounced on the pavement like ball bearings on a trampoline. Power and telephone lines were down. A driving rain reduced visibility to a few yards.
As the wind howled and the rain pounded many of the American volunteer workers at the immigration processing center at the old Naval base wept and wailed in anguish. Women dropped to their knees on the wet, muddy floors of the building, praying and beseeching "Dios Santo, Dios Santo."
"My mother, my mother is coming," one praying woman kept repeating, "Save her, Lord, save her, please."
A young man in a jungle fatigue uniform went from one crying woman to another, urging them, "Don't cry, pray! You must ask God to save them!"
The worst of the storm passed in two hours. By midafternoon, bright sunshine again bathed Key West.