The handmade wooden sailboat, weighed down with about 200 Haitians fleeing poverty, tried to maneuver through the treacherous coral reefs when it was struck by heavy swells. It had no chance.
"The waves broke the boat apart," said Samuel Been, minister
of public safety for the Turks and Caicos Islands. "It was
Tossed into the water, some managed to swim two miles to shore,
while others clung to wreckage or the razor-sharp reef. At least 15
Rescuers searched by sea and air Tuesday for nearly 70 more
believed missing after the overloaded sailboat ran aground and
splintered near the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The boat was carrying an estimated 200 men, women and teenagers
when it struck the reef near West Caicos, part of an archipelago
that has proven to be deadly for Haitians trying to escape their
homeland in rickety vessels.
Such perilous journeys have long been common throughout the
world, but the number of migrants risking their lives to cross
borders has declined amid increased enforcement in the United
States and Europe and due to a global recession that has eliminated
many unskilled jobs. Still, people continue to take the chance,
including the Haitians who crowded into a sailboat last week in
Fifteen people died and more than 100 were rescued after the
boat failed to navigate a narrow pass between two reefs, according
to the Coast Guard and Been, who spoke with 10 of the survivors.
Coast Guard boats, airplanes and a helicopter joined local
authorities and volunteers in searching a 1,600-square-mile area,
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Johnson. Any
survivors in the water would be struggling with 23 mph winds and
"We hope that there are survivors and we can get them medical
attention," she said. "However, as time goes by, it becomes less
and less likely because of exposure and fatigue."
Turks and Caicos is a magnet for divers who come to explore its
clear, shallow waters and reefs - conditions that also make it
treacherous for boaters unfamiliar with the jagged outcroppings of
coral that lie menacingly just below the surface in some places.
The Haitians had been at sea for three days when they spotted a
police vessel and tried to hide, accidentally steering the boat
onto a reef, survivor Alces Julien told The Associated Press.
"We saw police boats and we tried to hide until they passed,"
he said at a hospital where survivors were treated for dehydration.
"We hit a reef and the boat broke up."
But Deputy Police Commissioner Hubert Hughes said officers were
not pursuing the migrant vessel - which did not have a motor - and
were involved only as rescuers.
"They were traveling in waters that are quite dangerous if you
don't know the area quite well," he said.
Rescuers found survivors stranded on two reefs roughly two miles
from West Caicos Island, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag, a Coast Guard
spokesman. Most were ferried to land by Turks and Caicos
authorities in small boats.
Five survivors were found on West Caicos after apparently
swimming ashore, Hughes said.
Been said one Haitian man dove off a rescue boat and tried to
escape, but was caught.
"It wasn't hard to get him; he was already tired," he said.
Johnson said the boat sank Monday afternoon, but Hughes said it
might have been Sunday night. Turks and Caicos authorities reported
the capsizing Monday to the Coast Guard, which patrols the region
for drug traffickers and illegal migrants and often helps in search
and rescue efforts.
Survivors told authorities the boat set out from northern Haiti
with about 160 passengers, then stopped at an unknown location and
picked up 40 others before sinking near the Turks and Caicos, an
island chain between Haiti and the Bahamas, Johnson said. She said
overloading appeared to be a factor.
"These vessels, they are grossly overloaded," she said. "Two
hundred people on a sailboat is astronomical."
Nearly 60 survivors were surrounded by private security guards
at the two-story gymnasium, a beige, concrete structure near the
island's small airport.
"The people are being taken care of," said Donald Metelus, an
official from the Haitian Embassy who visited them. "They can
walk. They are in good health."
Haitian migrants captured in the region are normally returned to
the northeastern city of Cap-Haitien. A Haitian official there said
he was busy processing 124 migrants returned by U.S. authorities on
Monday and did not know when the survivors from Turks and Caicos
might arrive. Been said 50 of the survivors were being flown home
Sheila Laplanche, a spokeswoman for Haitian President Rene
Preval, said the government had no comment.
People-smuggling is a well-established, word-of-mouth industry
in impoverished Haiti. Brokers ply poor neighborhoods and
marketplaces, offering spots for about $500. Many of the boats
leave under the cover of night from a small barrier island called
La Tortue, off the northeast coast.
The migrants routinely are trying to reach the United States,
though many stay in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos and find work
to escape misery in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, 1,491 Haitians were
intercepted at sea between Oct. 1, 2008 and June 2, 2009. During
the previous fiscal year, 1,582 Haitians were intercepted.
Haitians often pool their money to send a family member hardy
enough to survive the perilous journey, often in crowded, filthy
conditions without food or much water.
Cheryl Little, the executive director for the Florida Immigrant
Advocacy Center, says Haitians rarely meet those who profit from
the smugglers. Haitians smuggled into the U.S. usually don't want
to discuss those who brought them, fearful of retaliation against
relatives back home.
Louis Harold Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the Bahamas, said the
tragedy reflects the depth of his country's poverty even as it
enjoys a rare period of political stability.
"The rate of growth right now in Haiti is not enough to provide
jobs for a great number of people and prevent them from risking
their life," Joseph said.
In May 2007, an overcrowded sloop carrying more than 160
migrants capsized off the Turks and Caicos, and some of the victims
were eaten by sharks. The 78 people who survived accused a Turks
and Caicos patrol boat of ramming their vessel as they approached
shore and towing them into deeper water.
In May, a boat carrying at about 30 mainly Haitian migrants
capsized off Florida's coast, killing at least nine people,
including a pregnant woman.
Hundreds of thousands of people try to reach the United States
through Mexico or the Florida Straits each year, with hundreds
dying along the way. Refugees from Myanmar head to Thailand and
Malaysia; Indonesians and Afghans make their way to Australia.
Tens of thousands of Africans set out by boat each year for
Europe and the Middle East. More than 4,500 bodies - mostly of
Moroccans - have been recovered in the Strait of Gibraltar since
2002, advocates say. The U.N. says 50,000 Somalis and others
crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen last year. An estimated 949
Experts say the numbers of Africans seeking a better life in
Europe have dwindled dramatically this year, in large part because
the global economic crisis is putting a damper on migrants' dreams
of a better life.