NASSAU, Bahamas – Haitians fleeing their impoverished homeland met tragedy when their boat went down off the Bahamas, killing at least 20 people and leaving only three known survivors, including an alleged migrant smuggler, authorities said Monday.
Survivors said the boat was carrying 24 people when it capsized Saturday night, according to U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz in Miami. Just before dawn Sunday, fishermen heard screams.
Volunteers searched for bodies, tying life preservers onto them so they could be recovered by the U.S. Coast Guard, said Chris Lloyd of the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association.
"We recovered as many as we could," Lloyd said.
The migrants appeared to be aiming for U.S. shores. The accident happened less than 150 miles from Miami, said Chief Petty Officer Ralph McKinney of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force. The boat had set out from Nassau and was supposed to stop in Bimini en route to Florida, he said.
Two Haitian survivors — a man and a woman — were being treated at a Nassau hospital for dehydration. The third survivor, a Honduran marine mechanic, was taken into police custody as authorities investigate smuggling allegations, McKinney said.
The two Haitian survivors identified the Honduran as the sunken vessel's captain, Lloyd said.
Haitian Ambassador Louis Harold Joseph said he had not yet received confirmation that everyone who died was Haitian. But he expressed doubt that the voyage was connected to recent Haitian food riots in which at least seven people died.
He said he was talking to leaders of the Haitian community in the Bahamas to see if they could help identify the victims or provide information about the voyage. But he said he didn't expect much.
"People who participate in smuggling operations generally they don't talk, they don't provide information," Joseph said in a phone interview.
Survivors described the boat as a go-fast, suggesting the migrants had more money than others who make the perilous crossing jammed aboard makeshift vessels.
The Coast Guard has been on alert for a spike in migration following riots earlier this month in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but so far none has appeared. So far this year, 737 Haitians have been intercepted, compared to 1,583 for 2007, according to the Coast Guard.
Caricom, the Caribbean economic trade bloc, said Monday that it is considering sending $10 million to Haiti to help it through its food crisis. The United Nations, United States and Venezuela also are offering help.
The weekend boat accident happened in calm waters about 15 miles northwest of Nassau, according to the Coast Guard, which sent a cutter, helicopter and a jet in the rescue mission. At least one private boat and two Bahamas military vessels also joined in. The search for survivors continued Monday.
Last year a migrant boat capsized near the Turks and Caicos islands, pitching Haitians into shark-infested waters. At least 61 people died.