Rescuers searched Atlantic waters off Florida on Thursday 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 on Wednesday.
The search continued through the night, but the death toll and number of survivors remained unchanged, Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen said on Thursday morning. Crews have used helicopters, cutters, a jet and a handful of small boats to search a combined area of 2,350 square miles (6,000 sq. kilometers). "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 Capt. James Fitton said. "It's a tragedy that someone would be so callous with human life."
Since October, the 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 $1 billion in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads. In January, United Nations-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."
Fitton said the boat apparently left Bimini in the Bahamas on Tuesday night and was believed to have capsized or collided with something at about 2 am (0600 GMT) on Wednesday. Many Caribbean migrants who try to reach the U.S. 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 (25 kilometers) off the shore of Boynton Beach, where water temperatures by the afternoon were in the high 70s. 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.
The ship's sinking came as Haitian-American leaders met in Washington on Wednesday to lobby for temporary protective status, or TPS, 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. "If not now, when?" Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, asked of potentially granting Haitians protective status. "The longer it takes the administration to decide whether to grant TPS, the more people may decide to attempt to make it to our shores."