SOUTH DOCK, Turks and Caicos Islands - Every year, Haitians by the hundreds set off in rickety boats hoping to escape poverty by sneaking into the United States. The perils became gruesomely apparent yesterday when a crowded boat capsized, flinging migrants into shark-infested waters.
Hours after the sailing vessel overturned in moonlit waters a half-mile from shore, rescuers had recovered more than a dozen bodies - some with savage bite wounds - and were searching for about 60 people.
The boat sank about a half-mile south of Providenciales Island, part of the British territory of the Turks and Caicos, about 575 miles southeast of Miami and 90 miles north of Haiti.
A Turks and Caicos police boat picked up 63 survivors, and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted 10 more clinging to the overturned vessel and guided in another boat to get them, Petty Officer Third Class Barry Bena said. The Coast Guard sent a cutter and a C-130 plane to join the search.
"We have 17 confirmed dead," a harried Turks and Caicos official said as bodies were being delivered to South Dock, the main commercial port of this British territory. "Five or six small boats of ours are out searching. The survivors are being fed."
The Coast Guard said its helicopter reported spotting about 20 dead. An AP reporter saw about a dozen bodies, some with missing feet and limbs.
It could become the worst disaster in years to hit Haitian migrants, who jam into boats to attempt the treacherous journey. The boat that overturned yesterday was about 25 feet long and carried 150 people.
"When it's done that way, it takes almost nothing for a disaster to occur," Bena said by phone from Miami. "A strong wind or a sea swell or people moving around can capsize a boat in an instant."
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, who is seeking to boost the economy. But the numbers of Haitians trying to reach the United States show that many people cannot wait as he tries to transform the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.