U.S. Coast Guard helps rescue 113 after Haitian boat capsizes

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Special Police Immigration Customs Enforcement officers and medical personnel attend to survivors of a capsized boat Tuesday in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. Rescuers searched for nearly 70 Haitians after an overloaded sailboat capsized. (Robert K. Houseman ~ Associated Press)

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos -- The U.S. Coast Guard used boats, airplanes and a helicopter to search the warm, shallow waters off the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday for some 70 Haitians believed missing after their overloaded sailboat capsized. Rescuers pulled 113 survivors from reefs, and at least 15 people were killed.

An estimated 200 people were aboard the boat when it capsized, said Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Johnson, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Miami. The Coast Guard was leading the search for survivors by sea and air.

"We're really hoping we can find as many people as possible," Johnson said.

The Haitians had been at sea for three days when the migrants spotted a police vessel and accidentally steered the boat onto a reef as they tried to hide, survivor Alces Julien said at a hospital were some survivors were being treated for dehydration.

"We saw police boats and we tried to hide until they passed," he said. "We hit a reef and the boat broke up."

But Deputy Police Commissioner Hubert Hughes said police 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 113 survivors stranded on two reefs roughly two miles offshore of West Caicos Island, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag, a Coast Guard spokesman. Most of them were ferried to land by Turks and Caicos authorities using small boats.

Five survivors were found on West Caicos after apparently swimming ashore, Hughes said.

Johnson said the shipwreck happened Monday, but Hughes said the boat might have sunk 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."

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.

People smuggling is a well-established, word-of-mouth industry in impoverished Haiti. Brokers ply poor neighborhoods and marketplaces throughout the country, 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, the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos to escape misery in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

In May 2007, an overcrowded sloop carrying more than 160 migrants capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands. 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.

Migrants around the world regularly risk death in search of a better life. Hundreds of people die each year trying to reach the United States across the desert border with Mexico or the Florida Straits. Hundreds more die each year on the journey from North Africa to Europe.

One wooden boat carrying 257 migrants sank in March only three hours from Libya, drowning more than 200 people in the Mediterranean.

Associated Press writer Mike Melia contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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