Death toll may hit 30 in Haitian migrant boat capsizing

A sailboat passing through the southern Bahamas islands with about 150 Haitian migrants onboard capsized after running aground, killing up to 30 people and leaving the rest clinging to the foundering vessel for hours, authorities said Tuesday.

The exact death toll remained uncertain. Authorities on scene confirmed at least 20 dead and determined the number could go higher, said Lt. Origin Deleveaux, a Royal Bahamas Defense Force spokesman. Interviews with migrants suggest the toll could reach about 30 people.

The remains of five victims had been recovered, and the RBDF and police were working with the U.S. Coast Guard to recover additional bodies before nightfall as they pulled the remaining victims from the 40-foot sailboat.

“Right now, we are just trying to recover as many bodies as we possibly can,” Deleveaux said.

Authorities believe the migrants had been at sea for eight to nine days with limited food and water and no life jackets, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma said. Many were severely dehydrated when the first rescue crews reached them. The boat, in addition to being overloaded, likely encountered rough weather, Deleveaux said.

“It was obviously just grossly overloaded, unbalanced, unseaworthy,” Somma said. “An incredibly dangerous voyage.”

The capsizing of overloaded vessels occurs with disturbing frequency in the area, the most recent being in mid-October when four Haitian women died off Miami. There have also been fatal incidents near the Turks and Caicos Islands, between Haiti and the Bahamas, and in the rough Mona Passage that divides the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

“Unfortunately, we see these types of tragedies occur on a monthly basis,” Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss said. “Every year we see hundreds of migrants needlessly lose their lives at sea taking part in these dangerous and illegal voyages.”

This latest incident occurred late Monday near Harvey Cays, about 80 miles southeast of New Providence, the island that includes the capital of Nassau, and 260 miles southeast of Miami.

Fishermen spotted the dangerously overloaded sailboat and alerted the Bahamas military, which asked the Coast Guard for assistance in locating the vessel, Somma said. By the time it was spotted, the 40-foot boat had run aground in an area dotted with tiny outcroppings and reefs and then capsized.

Photos taken by the Coast Guard showed people clinging to every available space on the overturned vessel. Some were taken to a clinic on nearby Staniel Cay for treatment for dehydration.

By late Tuesday afternoon, the Coast Guard and Bahamian authorities had rescued about 110 people, including 19 women. Deleveaux said there were no children on board.

Migrants have long traversed the Bahamian archipelago to reach the United States. Thousands have also settled in the Bahamas in recent years. Most of those rescued from the boat capsized near Harvey Cay will likely be brought back to a military base in New Providence for processing and eventual repatriation to Haiti.