MIAMI BEACH, FLA. — At least ten Haitians are now dead after a boat capsized at sea on this week, according to US Coast Guards officials.
Rescuers searched an expanding stretch of the Atlantic Ocean off Florida late yesterday for survivors a day after an overloaded boat capsized and sank with about 30 people aboard, mainly Haitian immigrants fleeing their country’s crushing poverty.
At least nine people were known to have died, including an infant, US coast guard officials said. Sixteen more people were pulled out of rough waters after the first survivors were discovered yesterday.
The rescue operation expanded this morning to follow currents farther north, coast guard spokesman James Harless said. The search, which has covered more than 2,500 square miles (6,475 square kilometres), now stretches from off Palm Beach county to just east of Cape Canaveral.
The search started around midday yesterday when a boater first discovered survivors in the ocean and continued through the night, using helicopters, cutters, a jet and a handful of small boats. No new victims were found in the pre-dawn hours, US coast guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen said.
“A lot of those people were out there treading water for a long time,” Ameen said. “Our main goal is everyone’s health right now and safety.”
Although the coast guard hadn’t figured out exactly how many people were aboard or how many might still be missing at sea, it appeared most of the passengers were from Haiti and the trip fit the profile of migrant smuggling.
“The boat was obviously overloaded,” coast guard Captain James Fitton said. “It’s a tragedy that someone would be so callous with human life.”
Illegal migrants from Haiti are almost always deported, a sore point for Miami’s Haitian-American community because Cuban migrants who reach US shores are allowed to stay under federal government policy. Cubans interdicted at sea are usually returned to the communist island.
The ship’s sinking came as Haitian-American leaders met in Washington yesterday to lobby for temporary protective status for those from the country who make it to the US.
It would be an emergency measure to keep people from being deported to their homeland while it recovers from a natural disaster or major political upheaval. It has been granted to countries including El Salvador and Nicaragua but never to Haiti.
Since October, the US coast guard has stopped 1,377 Haitians from trying to get to the US, an increase from 972 during the same seven-month period last year. Four tropical storms and hurricanes battered the western hemisphere’s poorest country during last year’s harvest season, killing 793 people, crippling agriculture and causing $1bn (£660m) in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads.
In January, UN-sponsored groups said more aid was urgently needed to stave off famine in several areas of the country. For those familiar with the plight of Haitians, the escape attempt was no surprise.
“The economic conditions in Haiti are deplorable, and I don’t see them getting any better any time soon,” said Andy Gomez, a University of Miami expert on Caribbean migration. “And the Haitian-American community has developed a pretty good network here in the last five or 10 years, just as the Cuban-Americans have done, so there’s more of a reason to come.”
The boat apparently left Bimini in the Bahamas on Tuesday night and was believed to have capsized or collided with something at about 2am yesterday, the coast guard said. Many Caribbean migrants who try to reach the US arrange trips leaving from the Bahamas.
Officials didn’t learn about the accident until another boater who spotted swimmers called more than 10 hours later about 15 miles off the shore of Boynton Beach, around 60 miles north of Miami. Water temperatures by the afternoon were around 77F.
The boat has not been found, and rescuers believed it sank because it hasn’t been spotted from the air. Besides children, women also were aboard, including a pregnant woman.
Several of the bodies recovered were taken from coast guard boats onto land in Riviera Beach, where dozens of emergency vehicles were waiting. Three of the survivors were taken to hospitals. The Palm Beach Post reported that one woman was in critical condition, but the coast guard said all the rescued people were expected to survive.
Tony Mead, operations manager at the Palm Beach county medical examiner’s office, said autopsies were under way this morning and would likely be completed by the end of the day. In a similar incident in May 2007, an overcrowded boat sailing toward the US capsized near Turks and Caicos islands, killing 54 people.