BOGOTA, Colombia – A small boat overloaded with 113 would-be illegal immigrants capsized and sank in rough waters off Colombia's Pacific coast, officials said Wednesday.
Only nine survivors were found, their faces scorched with sunburn after two days spent clinging to a wooden box, buoys and a gasoline container.
Ecuadorean Navy (search) Capt. Armando Elizalde told Colombian RCN television most of those aboard "sank with the boat." The Colombian Navy (search) said the immigrants' boat was meant to hold only 15 people.
The disaster that hit the boat — whose passengers were believed to be heading for the United States — occurred Friday night more than 100 miles off the coast of southwest Colombia.
"The boat, with way too many people aboard, was unable to resist a strong wave and it tipped over," Elizalde said, adding that most of those aboard were in the ship's hold when it capsized and could not escape.
When the wave struck, 17-year-old Angel Lalbay and other passengers "tumbled over each other" into the ocean.
"We hung on to a gas container for two days," he told Ecuador's Channel 10 news.
Four of the 13 people who emerged from the capsized boat drowned after their strength gave out, he added.
An Ecuadorean fishing boat found the nine survivors — seven men and two women — on Sunday, Elizalde said. They were later transferred to an Ecuadorean Coast Guard cutter and on Wednesday returned to Ecuador, their faces scorched and peeling from sunburn.
Most of the survivors were in their 20s, although the youngest was 15 years old.
Julio Cisalima, 25, said he also held on to the gas container to keep afloat.
"The boat tipped, there were lots of people. We then spent two days at sea and had to swim a lot," he told Ecuadorean television.
Another survivor, whose name was not given, said he held on to a buoy.
"There was a little bag of water floating and that's what we were surviving on," he told Colombia's Caracol television.
The Colombian navy and Ecuador's coast guard were searching for others from the boat.
The disaster highlighted the perilous journey that migrants seeking to escape poverty in their homeland undertake to reach the United States.
Traffickers often use Ecuador's coast as a launching point, frequently taking illegal immigrants to Guatemala or Mexico so they can travel overland into the United States.
Last May, a Costa Rican fisherman rescued 88 would-be migrants from Ecuador and Peru from their foundering vessel after he found a message in a bottle they had tied to a float marking one of his long fishing lines.
The migrants said that they had paid traffickers as much as $3,000 each as a down payment for the trip, with a promise to pay another $7,000 more upon completing the journey. But the boat's crew abandoned them at sea after the engine failed.
In August 2004, a U.S. Coast Guard (search) ship intercepted a disabled Ecuadorean boat carrying 106 illegal immigrants 415 miles off Ecuador's Pacific coast. The drifting boat had apparently been abandoned by its crew.
Rear Adm. Eduardo Navas, general director of Ecuador's merchant marines, said those aboard the boat that sank in the nighttime darkness Friday, plunging the occupants into the icy waters of the Pacific, were presumably heading to the United States.
Navas told Ecuadorean TV it was "a crime to have placed" so many Ecuadoreans in such a small boat, measuring no more than 65 feet in length.