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MASS EXODUS IS SPLITTING FAMILIES APART

Daniet Maria Hernandez and Maribel Collaso sit on folded pink blankets just a few feet apart on the ship's sun-soaked deck.

Yet they tell very different stories of hope and despair.The mass exodus from Cuba that began last month has broken families apart, with some leaving loved ones or children behind, or setting out across the Florida Straits in separate vessels hoping to regroup later.

Hernandez has her family. Seven months pregnant, she is comforted by her husband, Mario Galban, who squats next to her on the rocking 110-foot Coast Guard cutter. Her dark blue shirt, wet from the salty ocean spray, clings to her swollen belly, and despite nausea, she smiles.

It's her first child, she says, adding that there are no vitamins and not enough milk in Cuba.

Collaso sits alone, weeping, and unwraps layers of plastic to display pictures of her scattered family: her husband, who set out to sea a week before her in rough seas, and her 9-year-old son. The Cuban government has said it won't let children leave on rafts, so her child remains in Cuba with her parents, she said.

"Very sad," Collaso said Saturday, a day after fleeing Cuba. "My husband wouldn't let me go (with him) because of the bad weather. I don't know where he is."

She wonders if he has been picked up and taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where refugees are being held.

Hernandez has already learned that her parents and sister, who left two weeks earlier, are at the camp. She hopes to find her aunt in Orlando.

"Is it possible we can join our family in the United States?" she asks the crew.

The crew just says that she and the others will be transferred to a larger Navy ship. That ship is headed for Guantanamo.

The women are among 70 Cubans picked up early Saturday about 15 miles off the coast of Cuba. When the Metompkin returned to Key West after its two-day patrol, its crew had plucked 352 rafters from the sea.

Others on the cutter included Jose Riesgo Estrada, a chemical engineer who dreams of bringing his wife and children to the United States.

"I will work in the United States because it is a free country," he said in broken English.

Meanwhile, a pensive Tania Leonar Cortina, two months pregnant, doesn't want to eat the baked potato or the refugees' usual fare of beans and rice.

With nowhere to put the potato, Leonar Cortina slowly palms it from one hand to the other as she sits on the ship's raised gun deck. She left Cuba with her husband; her mother stayed behind.

"My mother cried when I left on the raft," she said, tears running down her face.