The U.S. Coast Guard found two bodies today inside the Cabin of one of more than a dozen small boats capsized outside Cuban waters, swamped in a violent storm that seems certain to have turned the refugee boatlift into a tragedy of unknown dimensions.
Meanwhile, U.S. Customs officials seized three commercial fishing boats in the start of an official campaign to halt the influx of thousands of Cubans seeking political asylum in the United States. But a flotilla estimated at more than 200 small boats, undaunted by the warnings, awaited clearer weather before resuming the boatlift of friends and relatives from Cuba.
Coast Guard officials refused to speculate about the loss of life in the three-hour storm, but their fears were clearly evident.
Cmdr. Sam Dennis, chief of the Coast Guard station here, said today that it would be "highly remarkable" has no one perished in the storm. Winds raged at more than 100 miles an hour, with waves of 20 feet or more, in the shark-ridden 90-mile stretch between here and Cuba.
"I think that women died," said Feliciano Benitez of Miami, who was found adrift in the storm by a Coast Guard cutter. "The wind was howling and the waves seemed three stories high. I heard a woman screaming 'Save me, save me, I'm drowning. I have water in my mouth.'"
Another survivor, Milton Sori of Miami, said, "This is inhuman, sad, pitful that you have people risking their lives to save their families. It was like 'The Poseidon Adventure.' I was too chicken to look at the waves, and I kept saying 'do I have to die this way?'"
Benitez and Sori were plucked from disabled boats about 35 miles north of Cuba by the 210-foot Coast Guard cutter Diligence, which returned here today after 48 hours in the storm-ravaged Florida Straits. It carried 24 rescued boaters.
The skipper of the Diligence, Cmdr. Homer Purdy, said in his two decades of service he had seen only two ocean storms that were more violent. The Diligence recorded winds of 96 knots -- well over 100 mph -- at the storm's peak.
"I've never known what the term stark terror' meant until I saw the faces of these people we hauled on board," Purdy said. "It was not pleasant." Purdy said that during its two-day search and rescue mission, the Diligence had not spotted a single north-bound vessel out of the Cuban port of Mariel, which tended to comfirm Havana radio reports that return traffic had been stopped because of weather.
Cuban radio said that 1,552 boats from the United States were jammed into the port at the northern island port of Mariel, part of the flotilla that began carrying refugees from Cuba to the United States just over a week ago.
The broadcast also said that returness would be allowed to leave Mariel only in groups, for safety, and that Cuban patrol boats would follow them toward Florida.
Coast Guard and local port officials continued to express astonishment at the great variety of unseaworthy, il-equipped and poorly manned vessels that set out from Key West to bring Cubans here since Fidel Castro indicated earlier this month that they could leave their island.
"Not one of these boats was suitable," said Purdy. "None of the boats we found had radios. None of the operators was experienced. A majority of the boats were too small, they did not know where they were going."
In addition to the 14 capsized boats the Diligence spotted, it towed eight more disabled craft back to U.S. shores. Purdy said most of the disabled boats were found about 40 miles northeast of Havana.
But the figures produced by the Coast Guard seemed unlikely to be anywhere close to the full story, for on one knows how many boats and people left the United States, and U.S. and Cuban rescue forces are not talking to each other across the water.
Purdy and Dennis conjectured that occupants of some swamped and disabled vessels may have been rescued by fellow flotilla members, traveling in groups. Other boaters, however, set out independently in small vessels to pick up Cuban relatives.
Despite the awesome warning sent by Mother Nature Sunday, dozens of exiles continued to gather on the docks at Key West, looking for boats to charter or awaiting calmer seas so they could depart of Cuba.
Francisco Veliz, manager of the local port authority, estimated that at least 200 vesels were waiting to leave, with many haveing formed small groups to make the traveling easier.
"I would estimate that 2,500 boats have left here," Veliz said, "but that is only an estimate. These are public boat ramps and anyone can launch a boat here. We just don't keep a record."
As the middy weather alternated between sun, clouds ans winds, exile boatmen huddled around their small vessels tied up in the harbor, talking about their desperate desires to retrieve relatives in Cuba.
"We're not going unless the weather is certain," said Simon Canasi, 24, a Cuban-born stockbroker from Tampa.
Canasi was preparing to leave on a 24-foot vessel with two other friends -- the very type of boat that safety officials have described repeatedly as an invitation to disaster in uncertain weather.
Many of the 24 men who came off the Diligence today learned the hard way and vowed they would not go to Cuba unless they could find larger, more secure vessels.
Feliciano Benitez said he would not again attempt the crossing, which he tried Sunday, although he still wants to claim his son, grandchildren and brother.
Benitez said that he and others on their disabled 27-foot vessel were cheered when a Cuban fishing boat began towing them toward Mariel, about 50 miles distant.
Then the storm broke suddenly and, Benitez said, the Cuban resuce boat chopped its towline and sped away toward Cuba, leaving the exiles adrift again. The Diligence spotted them shortly after that as the storm roared.
Milton Sori, one of five men on a 24-foot boat that broke a propeller, said he would not make a return trip.
"The Coast Guard has been magnificent. But it ought to be up to Fidel Castro to get the people out safely. It is not the Coast Guard's fault that 10,000 Cubans went into the Peruvian Embassy because they want out of that country," he said.
To meet the emergency, the Coast Guard assembled planes, rescue vessels and workers from throughout the eastern United States. The Diligence was returning to duty this afternoon to join two other larger cutters in the straits.