PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos – Rescue teams scanned the clear blue waters off the Turks and Caicos Islands Wednesday with fading hopes of finding dozens of Haitian migrants whose sailboat struck a reef and shattered in the waves.
Authorities have rescued more than 100 people, some clinging to the sharp reefs that surround the Atlantic archipelago, but "the more time the human body spends in the water, the opportunity for survival grows less," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Johnson.
The death toll so far was 15 and authorities said about 70 people were unaccounted for.
The U.S. Coast Guard, local marine police and volunteers searched hundreds of square miles of ocean for any survivors of the wooden sailboat that splintered on the reef.
Turks and Caicos officials were moving quickly to send the ill-fated migrants back to impoverished Haiti, saying 60 were flown home Tuesday. Fifty-eight more spent Tuesday night under blankets on cots in a gym, and an unspecified number were at another detention site or in the hospital. The bodies of the unlucky 15 lay in a makeshift morgue.
It still wasn't clear when the boat wrecked. Johnson said the accident occurred Monday afternoon, but Deputy Police Commissioner Hubert Hughes said it could have happened Sunday night. Turks and Caicos reported the disaster Monday to the Coast Guard, which patrols the area for drug traffickers and illegal migrants and helps in search and rescue efforts.
The sailboat, crowded with about 200 men, women and teenagers fleeing Haiti's deep poverty, broke up as it tried to maneuver through treacherous coral reefs and was struck by heavy swells near West Caicos.
"The waves broke the boat apart," Samuel Been, minister of public safety for the Turks and Caicos Islands, said after talking with 10 survivors. "It was frightening."
Such perilous journeys have long been common throughout the world, although the number of migrants risking their lives has declined amid increased border enforcement by the U.S. and Europe, as well as the global recession that has eliminated many jobs for unskilled workers.
Still, Haitians in particular continue to brave the risks. Nearly 100 Haitians, including some eaten by sharks, died in May 2007 when an overcrowded sloop capsized off the Turks and Caicos. Some of the 78 survivors charged that a Turks and Caicos patrol boat rammed their vessel as they approached shore and towed them into deeper water.
Turks and Caicos, which lies between Haiti and the Bahamas, is a magnet for divers who come to explore its clear, shallow waters and reefs conditions that also make it treacherous for boaters unfamiliar with the jagged outcroppings of coral that lie just below the surface in some places.
Survivor Alces Julien told The Associated Press it was one of the reefs that claimed the sailboat after three days at sea.
"We saw police boats and we tried to hide until they passed," he said at a hospital where survivors were treated for dehydration. "We hit a reef and the boat broke up."
Hughes, the police official, said officers were not pursuing the migrant vessel, which did not have a motor. "They were traveling in waters that are quite dangerous if you don't know the area quite well," he said.
Rescuers found survivors stranded on two reefs roughly 2 miles (3 kilometers) from West Caicos Island, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag said.
Five survivors were found on West Caicos after apparently swimming ashore, Hughes said.
Survivors said the boat set out from northern Haiti last week with about 160 passengers, then stopped at an unknown location and picked up 40 others, Johnson said.
"These vessels, they are grossly overloaded," she said of the rickety vessels that Haitians typically use in their desperate voyages. "Two hundred people on a sailboat is astronomical."
Haitian migrants caught in the region are normally returned to Cap-Haitien in northeastern Haiti. A Haitian official there said he was busy processing 124 other migrants returned by U.S. authorities 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 Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. Brokers ply poor neighborhoods and marketplaces, offering spots for about $500.
Haitians often pool their money to send a family member hardy enough to survive the perilous journey, often in crowded, filthy conditions without food or much water.
The migrants usually hope to reach the United States, though many stay in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos after finding work.
Despite the slowdown in global migration with the onset of economic crisis, Haitians don't seem to be deterred. According to the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, 1,491 Haitians were intercepted at sea in the nine months through June 2 not much below the 1,582 stopped during the previous 12 months.