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Posted Tuesday, July 28, 2009   

Haitian Boat Survivors Sought Near Turks and Caicos


MIAMI — The Coast Guard said Tuesday that for a second day it was scouring a wide area of the Atlantic for dozens of Haitians who had crammed onto a rickety sailboat that sank near the Turks and Caicos Islands with 200 people aboard. As of 5:30 p.m., Coast Guard officials here said 15 bodies had been found, 118 people had been rescued and at least 67 were missing.

The Coast Guard said the boat had hit a coral reef and sunk two and a half miles from the coast of West Caicos, the westernmost island in the Turks and Caicos archipelago. It was unclear whether the boat sank Sunday or Monday. The boat, believed to be a shoddily built sail freighter 30 to 50 feet long, had been heading north from Haiti.

Survivors said the boat had departed carrying 160 people and had picked up 40 more before sinking, according to Coast Guard officials. All were believed to be migrants. Most of the missing passengers have probably drowned.

“We’re getting reports of 20-knot winds and six-foot seas out there,” said Petty Officer Jennifer Johnson, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Miami. “If you put 200 people on a vessel that’s 30 or 40 feet, it’s bound for disaster.”

The sinking is potentially one of the worst disasters in years to strike Haitians fleeing the destitution of their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. If no other survivors are found, the death toll will be the largest since at least 2007, when about 80 Haitians drowned or were eaten by sharks after their boat capsized near Turks and Caicos with 150 people aboard.

Such tragedies have become fixtures of the teal-blue Caribbean. Many Haitians, among others, pay thousands of dollars to smugglers for passage in flimsy boats in hopes of landing in the Bahamas, or reaching the United States, about 700 miles away, to find work.

But traveling without navigation equipment, in overloaded boats, is often perilous. In May, at least nine Haitians died when their boat sank about 15 miles off the Florida coast.

Traffic on the seas off Florida’s coast seems to be increasing. The Coast Guard says it has stopped more than 1,500 migrants from Haiti since October, an increase of about 20 percent over the same period in the previous year.

The boat that sank had been at sea for at least three days when passengers saw a police vessel and accidentally ran the boat onto a reef as they tried to hide, a survivor, Alces Julien, said at a hospital treating some survivors, The Associated Press reported. The Coast Guard was alerted to the accident at 3 p.m. Monday, and by Tuesday, it was assisting the rescue ships from the Turks and Caicos with helicopters, a C-130 transport plane and a cutter, the Valiant.

The rescue craft picked up 118 survivors, most of them stranded on the shallow coral reef, the Coast Guard said. Petty Officer Johnson said two bodies had been recovered near the reef; most of the other 13 were found slightly farther north.

The search effort, covering 1,600 square miles, ran the course of the day. “We searched through the night and have been at it full force since first light,” Petty Officer Johnson said.

She added that migrant shipwrecks often occurred in the reef-filled waters around Turks and Caicos. “It’s shallow and can get extremely rough,” she said. “All they have is a sail and a rudder, and when they head north, avoiding these hazards becomes extremely difficult.”

The survivors were shuttled from the reef by boat and helicopter to Providenciales, another island in the western part of the archipelago. It will be up to the Turks and Caicos authorities to decide whether to send the survivors back to the destitute nation they risked their lives to flee.

Mark McDonald contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Sharon Otterman from New York.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Tuesday, July 28, 2009.
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