NASSAU, Bahamas – The moonlight illuminated the young woman's fellow passengers from the capsized boat, scattered through the chilly ocean 15 miles from land. Some of them screamed for help. Others bobbed silently, face-down in the water.
As the voices grew quiet one by one, Rodene Fileresaint clung to the only life preserver she could find: the lifeless body of a Haitian who had shared her American dream.
"I was holding onto a dead woman to keep afloat," the 23-year-old high school student said.
Nine hours later, day broke and rescuers finally arrived. Some two dozen people were dead. Three were alive, including Fileresaint.
She was still clinging to the corpse.
Thousands of Haitians fleeing poverty and hopelessness make the illegal crossing to Florida each year. The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 737 since Jan. 1; nobody knows how many more have drowned or been killed by sharks.
This group of migrants took a common route, boarding a smuggler's boat to the Bahamas, two survivors told The Associated Press late Wednesday from hospital beds. Bahamian police grabbed several of the migrants as they reached land, and those who escaped made it to a safehouse, where they spent two weeks waiting to move on.
On Saturday night, they boarded a speedboat bound for Miami, with a planned stopover in Bimini, a speck of land where police don't have a single vessel to give chase. Fileresaint, the daughter of rice farmers, was excited: Her dream of becoming a nurse in Miami was finally within reach.
Fileresaint said she counted 27 people aboard the speedboat. Survivor Johnny Boucher, 26, said they were packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
An hour after leaving Nassau, the boat suddenly began to take on water.
"I was sitting in the front of the boat. The boat was speeding," Boucher said through an interpreter, his eyes filling with tears. "Water was coming inside of the boat and we couldn't see where it was coming from. Women started screaming to turn back."
Within moments, the boat capsized. Boucher said he had time to strip off two shirts, his pants and his shoes before plunging into the swells.
"I thought I was going to die," he said.
Boucher said he treaded water for hours as he screamed for help in Creole.
The cramps were excruciating, he said, and he was nearly unconscious when he felt someone grab him and pluck him from the water Sunday morning.
Fishermen had heard the screams and alerted authorities. Rescuers pulled bodies from the waters, but the Coast Guard told them to focus on the survivors, slipping life jackets onto the corpses so they could be picked up later.
The bodies of 12 women and two men were recovered before search operations were called off at dusk Wednesday.
Rescuers said they were surprised to find so many bodies floating so soon after the accident. But John Sanders, director of the U.S. National Underwater Rescue and Recovery Institute, said that is to be expected, especially for people killed before hitting the water — say, by hitting their heads.
Florida-based family members of one victim, 30-year-old Lorna Eugene, paid US$5,000 (euro3,170) for a smuggler to take her to Miami to be with her fiance, according to relatives in Haiti. Her sister, Louna Eugene, said Lorna's family warned her about the dangers of the voyage.
"We told her not to get on a boat full of people," Eugene said Thursday by telephone from Port-de-Paix in northern Haiti. She said her sister's fiance hopes to travel to Nassau, where Lorna is to be buried on Monday.
Fileresaint remained hospitalized Thursday for exposure, while Boucher was taken to a migration detention center, according to William Pratt, the Bahamas' assistant director of immigration.
The third survivor, a Honduran, was being held by police for investigation of smuggling.