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Cuban migrant dies in high-speed dash to Florida

Coast Guard stops boat loaded with 31 migrants

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The Coast Guard chases the boat carrying 31 Cuban migrants.

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- A woman died after the Coast Guard chased and captured a speedboat carrying 31 Cuban migrants and three suspected immigrant smugglers about 4 miles off the coast of Boca Chica, Florida, on Saturday, the Coast Guard said.

The incident began about 6:30 a.m. when the Coast Guard gave chase to a "grossly overloaded" 36-foot boat, moving fast and without proper navigational lights, according to a Coast Guard statement. The boat was equipped to carry only nine passengers, Petty Officer James Judge said.

The chase began about 39 miles south of Key West.

The boat's driver ignored numerous orders to stop and tried to ram a pursuing Coast Guard boat more than five times, forcing the Coast Guard to fire at its three engines, the statement said. (Watch the Coast Guard force the speeding boat to a halt -- 2:07)

"A crewman from one of the two pursuing Coast Guard boats applied two shots of disabling fire to the engines of the fleeing vessel to finally stop it and rescue the migrants," the statement said.

The Coast Guard said no one was injured by the gunfire.

Once aboard the ship, the Coast Guard crew found a woman with severe facial bruises and head injuries. She was evacuated to Key West for medical attention but died en route, authorities said. She was pronounced dead at 8:34 a.m.

An autopsy is planned for Sunday, and the Coast Guard will release results, according to Michael Hunter, chief medical examiner for Monroe County, Florida.

"This was a horrific voyage for these migrants and has resulted in a tragedy," Capt. Phil Heyl, commander of Coast Guard Sector Key West, said in a statement. "The family and friends of the dead woman have our deepest sympathy."

Other migrants on the boat, including a pregnant woman and three men, also received medical attention. The pregnant woman was hospitalized but it did not appear she was in serious condition, and the three men were treated for minor injuries aboard a Coast Guard cutter, Judge said.

The rest of the migrants were taken to the cutter, too, where they were to remain until they were screened by immigration authorities, Judge said.

Heyl blamed the death and injuries on the "ruthless smugglers," who speeded an overloaded boat through the choppy water that sometimes produced swells as high as 4 feet.

"There was no way for these people to brace themselves against the impact of the boat slamming into the rough seas," Heyl said in the statement.

The U.S. Attorney's office is reviewing the incident.

"Smugglers often treat migrants as if they were human cargo, with blatant disregard for individual life and safety," said T. Alexander Acosta, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. "Today yet another life was lost."

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