'Angels' Watching Over Cuban Rafters : Florida: Brothers to the Rescue has spotted more than 800 people, but it has also found dozens of empty rafts. And it has been forced to stand by in vain as Cuban gunboats intercepted refugees.

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For the Cubans who risk all to traverse the Florida Straits, there is comfort in knowing that someone "up there" is looking out for them.

Their guardian angels are pilots who pass overhead, scanning the waters for the rafts of these desperate immigrants. They are the Hermanos al Rescate-- Brothers to the Rescue.

"To be in the middle of the ocean trying to escape from (Cuban leader Fidel) Castro you have to have somebody, to know somebody is helping you," said Alexis Garcia, who fled Cuba with a friend in a kayak last year.

"I was without water and food for 18 hours," said Garcia, now a 31-year-old waiter in Miami. "We weren't sure about our future. Then the plane was flying overhead. I think I'm alive here today because of them."

Brothers fly three days a week. When a raft is discovered, the pilot notifies the Coast Guard to pick up the immigrants.

"These guys, they put their lives on the line every time they fly," said Carlos Solis, vice director of the Cuban Transit Center, which helps the refugees settle in the United States.

Brothers began two years ago when Cuban exile Bill Schuss was touched by a plight of a young rafter.

"I was watching TV one day in my house and I saw this young guy who was being rescued, he was 15 years old," said Schuss, 58. "When he was rescued, he just died right there. That was like a catalyst to me because I have kids about that age."

Schuss first thought boats would be the answer to scour the Straits, but then he contacted his longtime friend Jose Basulto, who had a single-engine Cessna. Within three weeks they found their first rafter.

"It was exhilaration," said Basulto, 63. "We were about to break apart the aircraft jumping in the seats. We were happier than the people down in the rafts."

As of early September, Brothers to the Rescue had spotted 868 rafters. But for all the success, spotters have found dozens of empty rafts and have stood by in vain as Cuban gunboats intercepted rafts full of refugees.

"Three out of four don't make it," said Thomas C. Van Hare, a Brothers pilot. "Nobody in their right mind would do it, but the level of desperation inside of Cuba has reached the critical point."

The Cuban exodus has been escalating dramatically in the last few years, going from 59 in 1988 to 2,557 last year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. Through the Labor Day weekend, 1,764 had made the voyage this year.

If the rafters are risking their lives, so are the rescuers. Three Brothers planes have crashed; in one case, a pilot was paralyzed from the waist down. On Aug. 19, a plane came too close to the water and damaged its landing gear, but successfully landed without gear on Marathon Key.

"It was miraculous," Basulto said. "It had to be God's hand that prevented the pilot from getting killed."

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