SOUTH DOCK, Turks and Caicos Islands – Authorities searched the turquoise waters surrounding this British territory Saturday for some 40 Haitian migrants missing after their boat sank. The bodies of 36 people have been recovered.
At least three of the bodies fished from the water had been attacked by sharks, and some had limbs chewed off, said police Inspector Hilton Duncan.
Every year, Haitians by the hundreds set off in rickety boats hoping to escape poverty by sneaking into the U.S. In the pre-dawn hours of Friday, one of those voyages turned into a nightmare.
A 25-foot boat carrying an estimated 150 people capsized in the dark a half-mile from shore in shark-infested waters. More than 70 people were rescued.
One survivor, Wilke Pierre, 52, said a storm struck as the boat neared the Turks and Caicos early Friday, turning the waters choppy and lashing the boat with torrential rain and lightning. Some passengers in the overloaded boat panicked, causing it to capsize.
"I lost one of my two daughters that made the trip with me. I wanted to save her but I could not, because everyone was excited and was screaming," Pierre told The Associated Press. "I saw several of the passengers, mostly children and women drop from the boat. It was all panic because everyone was trying to survive."
The boat had left Cap-Haitien, in northern Haiti, early Wednesday morning, Pierre said.
Fishermen passing by just before daybreak saw the migrants in the water and summoned police.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted some survivors clinging to the hull of their overturned vessel, said Petty Officer Third Class Barry Bena. The chopper guided a boat to get them. A Coast Guard cutter and a C-130 plane also were dispatched to join the search.
The Coast Guard said its helicopter spotted about 20 corpses scattered in the water. Police on the shore put the body of one man, with most of the lower half missing, onto a white sheet.
Duncan said late Friday that 72 migrants were rescued. However, the government said there were 78 survivors — 69 males and 9 females. The numbers could not immediately be reconciled.
Thirty-six bodies were recovered, some from the sunken vessel that was towed to shore, authorities said.
The survivors were taken to a detention center on Providenciales, the main urban island in the Turks and Caicos, where they were being processed for repatriation.
Turks and Caicos Health Minister Lillian Boyce said it was the worst marine accident the islands had seen in decades and called on human trafficking rings to stop imperiling lives.
The number of Haitians intercepted by the Coast Guard has increased recently, despite the restoration of democracy to Haiti last year with the election of President Rene Preval. Preval replaced an interim government that took over after a bloody rebellion overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
This year, the Coast Guard has intercepted 909 Haitians, compared to 769 intercepted during all of 2006 and 1,828 in 2005. During turbulent 2004, 3,078 were interdicted.