MIAMI – For eight days, they had no food or water.
Joel Moreno and the 12 other men with whom he'd fled Cuba were so close to the U.S. at one point they could see the lights off the coast of Florida. Then a strong wave overturned their raft, throwing all their supplies into the ocean.
They drank sea water and vomited. They told stories. They thought about their children.
After a week, Moreno, 39, decided they had no option left but to try and swim to shore. He broke apart what was left of the raft, giving each man a piece to cling to, and they separated into the night.
"We'd each have to try and save our own life," he said.
By Monday evening, 11 had been found by rescuers or made it to land. The Coast Guard continued searching Tuesday for two rafters who remain missing. Moreno, who swam two miles and reached Elliott Key in Miami's Biscayne Bay, recounted their journey. His skin was deeply tanned and wrinkled from days under the sun, giving the appearance of a man twice his age.
At the Church World Service offices, where Cuban migrants are connected with social services, he shivered in an air conditioned room.
"I'm still cold," he said.
Moreno said the men left from Cojimar, on the island's northern central coast, where he worked as a fisherman. The others, mostly in their 20s and 30s, worked as truck drivers and mechanics in surrounding towns. They spent three days building the raft from inner tubes, foam and tarp. After adding a 90 horsepower boat motor, they departed on Sunday, Oct. 18 at about 3 a.m.
Within six hours, Moreno said they could see ships and lights from buildings in Key West. Then the motor ran out of gas. The men began paddling toward land, but a cold front moved in and pushed them further back to sea.
On the second day, their vessel capsized. They all managed to climb back aboard, but were left with no food or fresh water to sustain them.
Moreno said he thought about his daughters, ages 7 and 1, in those long days drifting in the ocean.
"Two beauties," he said, his eyes wet with tears.
Soon, the men began to feel the effects of dehydration: One suddenly got up and started walking, as though he was hallucinating and about to leave. They grew sick from ingesting so much sea water.
On the sixth day, a cargo ship hit their craft and continued on, Moreno said. None of the men were hurt, but their vessel was damaged. By Sunday evening, he said they could no longer endure without food or water.
"I'm going," he announced. "What are you all going to do?"
He began taking the raft apart and each man grabbed a buoyant piece.
About 12 hours later, Moreno had swum two miles and reached land. Another man also made it to shore. Five more were rescued in the water by two pleasure craft. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue plucked three more from the water.
An eleventh man was found around sunset Monday by a boater.
In a poignant twist, not all of them may be allowed to remain in the U.S., despite their ordeal.
Under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cuban migrants who reach U.S. shores are generally allowed to stay, while those who are found at sea are returned.
The rescue comes amid a significant rise in the number of Cubans attempting to reach the U.S. by sea. At least 3,722 were intercepted in the water or made it to shore in the last fiscal year, a 75 percent increase.
Moreno said he had tried to leave Cuba in a raft five times before. Each time he was caught. He said he wants to work and better provide for his family, and also be with his father, who left in 1980. He had not seen him since.
On Tuesday, Luis Felipe Moreno, 60, received a call from his relatives in Cuba: His son was in Miami.
He rushed over to the Church World Service and buried himself in his son's thin arms.
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