SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — A wooden boat carrying as many as 150 refugees sank Tuesday in shark-infested waters off the coast of the Dominican Republic, killing 50 or more people, authorities said.
Authorities rescued 32 people when the boat overturned in heavy waves about five miles off the northeast coast as it was headed for Puerto Rico. The survivors were treated at two hospitals for overexposure to the sun and other injuries, police said.
The neighboring islands are separated by the 100-mile-wide Mona Passage, which runs between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Eugenio Cabral, head of Civil Defense in the Dominican Republic, said "there are many dead, more than 50." Cabral said he made the estimate while flying over the zone in a small Dominican air force plane.
"I saw sharks eating the bodies of the people," said Cabral, adding that there were between 100 and 150 people aboard the boat.
Authorities said the craft left a beach near the town of Nagua, on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, about 4 a.m. and that heavy waves overturned the vessel about two to four hours later.
An air and sea search began about noon for survivors, Cabral said.
The hunt was called off at nightfall and will resume at first light today, Cabral said.
Lt. Dale Ferrell of the U.S. Coast Guard in nearby San Juan, Puerto Rico, said the Dominican navy was handling the search and said they "did not need our help."
Back on land in the Dominican Republic, about 150 people who had expected boats to come for them were discovered and detained by police for questioning to determine who was responsible for planning the trip to Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth.
Beaches on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic often serve as jumping off points for Dominicans aiming for jobs and a better life in Puerto Rico--and, if things go well, the U.S. mainland.
Thousands of people driven by poverty to seek a new life in the United States have crossed the Mona Passage in small boats.
No one knows how many Dominican boat people have drowned crossing the shark-infested passage that separates Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
James H. Walker, regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, estimated last year that an average of 1,000 Dominicans enter Puerto Rico each month. The number is slightly higher during the winter when the Mona Passage is relatively calm.
The situation is reminiscent of the wave of Haitian boat people who drowned in the early 1980s trying to reach Florida. The surge of Dominicans crossing to Puerto Rico started about the same time but received less attention until recently.
Immigration officials estimate that at least 150,000 Dominicans, and maybe as many as 300,000, are living in Puerto Rico.