SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — As the estimated death toll rose to at least 70, authorities said Wednesday that doomed refugees from a sinking boat had thrashed wildly in the waves, trying to fend off more than 40 frenzied sharks, but officials flying above could do nothing to help.
Between 70 and 100 people are feared dead from the capsizing of the overloaded boat off the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. Officials said some of the missing may have made it to shore and fled; many bodies were expected to surface later.
According to the account of one survivor, 168 Dominicans crowded onto an old 50-foot wooden boat that was to smuggle them to Puerto Rico--the prosperous U.S. commonwealth 100 miles across the shark-infested Mona Channel--at a cost of $300 to $500 each.
"Most of those who made the trip were women and hardly anyone knew how to swim," said Eddy Ventura, 39. He said he floated 3 1/2 miles to shore clutching an empty gasoline tank.
Civil Defense Director Eugenio Cabral, who put the number of passengers at 100 to 150, said the tally indicated that there were "about 70 missing." Thirty-two people have been rescued. Cabral estimated that 30 people made it to shore but fled to avoid arrest.
"I would not say there is no hope. I have faith that there are two or three (alive) in the Mona Channel . . . . I insist that there are still people alive."
Cabral, who was aboard a plane that flew over the site Tuesday, estimated the number of sharks at "more than 40."
"People signaled to us with their hands to please help them, but in our little plane we could do nothing."
He criticized the Dominican armed forces for not sending helicopters immediately and not asking the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance. On Wednesday, the government asked the U.S. Embassy for help and a Coast Guard helicopter from Puerto Rico was dispatched.
Five civil defense boats and several fishing boats resumed a search at daybreak Wednesday.
Cabral said he expected scores of bodies to start surfacing soon.
"That takes about 48 hours," he said. "I expect that between today and tomorrow, bodies will begin appearing in large quantities."
Also with Cabral in the plane was Luis Rolon Nevarez, civil defense director for Puerto Rico. "When I saw the overturned hull, there were survivors on top of it and swimming next to it. A few minutes later we could see the sharks attacking them," he told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
"There were several schools of about 15 sharks each, just attacking the refugees in the water. The sea was red around them," he said.
"I've never seen anything more horrible in 22 years of civil defense."