SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — An estimated 50 or more people were killed on Tuesday when a boat carrying refugees from the Dominican Republic sank on the way to Puerto Rico, and rescue officials said they saw sharks attacking people in the water.
Dominican officials said 23 people had been rescued. The boat went down in the Mona channel between the Republic and Puerto Rico, they said.
The director of the Dominican Republic's civil defense forces, Eugenio Cabral, told reporters after flying over the scene: "We saw sharks chewing up people in the water. It was a horrible experience."
Civil Defense officials said the number of dead was uncertain. But they estimated more than 50 had been lost, apparently after the boat's engine exploded and the vessel broke up.
Officials said the boat had set off before dawn from the remote Nagua area of the eastern Dominican Republic, the region most often used for illegal voyages.
Dominican Republic officials said that people in the eastern Dominican Republic had heard an explosion on Tuesday morning soon after the boat was believed to have departed.
Dominican Republic Defense Minister Antonio Imbert said that military helicopters had hauled at least three people to safety. A frigate also sped to the scene.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola, in the Caribbean between Puerto Rico and Cuba. Poor citizens of both countries, unable to get visas to the United States legally, have for years set off in fragile boats, sometimes even rafts, to Puerto Rico, a U.S. Commonwealth, in the hope of a better life.