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Up to 400 Drown as Overloaded Ferry Capsizes Near Haiti Port

Disaster: It is unclear how many survived. But vessel had at least twice the safe number of passengers aboard, officials say.

September 09, 1997|From Times Wire Services

MONTROUIS, Haiti — A severely overloaded ferryboat capsized Monday when passengers rushed to one side as it was entering port on Haiti's west-central coast, killing as many as 400 people trapped inside the vessel, survivors said. Scores--or, by some estimates, hundreds--made it to shore.

The 60-foot boat was certified to safely carry between 80 and 260 people, according to various estimates. About 700 were jammed aboard, police and coast guard officials said.

Thousands of Haitians wailed in grief on the pebbled beach of this fishing village as U.N. divers and half a dozen fishing boats searched 200 yards offshore for victims. Others on the beach helped carry bodies from coast guard boats to shore.

U.S. Coast Guard and U.N. helicopters hovered above the spot where the ferry, the Pride of Gonave, disappeared in 75 feet of water as hundreds of its passengers screamed below decks.

"The boat was overloaded. When it maneuvered to disembark, everybody ran to one side and the boat tipped over," said survivor Benjamin Joseph, a 38-year-old civil engineer.

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The brand-new ferry--it had gone into service only 10 days earlier--had no life jackets, and doors that were bolted shut prevented many passengers from escaping, Joseph and other survivors said.

The ferry sank early Monday morning in the Saint Marc Channel off Montrouis, 50 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital. It had left from Anse-a-Galets on Gonave Island, about 12 miles to the southwest.

Haitian coast guard crews pulled 24 survivors and four bodies from the water, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Steve Banks in Port-au-Prince. By evening, U.N. divers had retrieved 25 more bodies.

The United States said it was giving $25,000 to help relatives of disaster victims. U.S. Ambassador William Swing released a statement expressing "our deepest regret on the occasion of this tragic accident."

There were conflicting reports about the numbers of victims and survivors and the authorized capacity of the ferry.

Haitian police and coast guard officials said about 700 people were on the ferry. An estimated 400 people made it to shore, leading Haitian authorities to believe as many as 300 people perished, Banks said.

But Joseph and other survivors said they believed about 400 people went down with the ferry and that 60 people, at most, made it to shore.

And Claude Hamel, the U.N. chief of operations in Haiti, said late Monday that there were 51 survivors.

The vessel was certified to carry only 80 passengers, Banks said. But Hamel said it was authorized to carry 260 people.

As it reached Montrouis, the ferry turned so that passengers could transfer to rowboats to go ashore. Passengers rushed to one side of the ship, causing it to capsize.

"We felt it was unsteady," said survivor Guyva Merilus, 28, a radio reporter who escaped from the second deck.

Each day, hundreds of Haitians crowd onto similar ferries, many of which are motor-assisted sailboats. The boats, which carry food to Gonave Island and charcoal to the mainland, are often overloaded.

The largest ferries have an official capacity of 300 people--a limit often ignored by Haiti's underregulated sea transport industry. The government claims it lacks the resources to monitor the vessels.

Thousands of Haitians regularly use coastal ferries that hug the mainland. Sea travel is a cheap and common means of transport in this poor, mountainous nation on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The highways, never good, have deteriorated over the years.

On Feb. 16, 1993, an overloaded ferry carrying 1,000 people sank off Haiti's southern peninsula. At least 700 people drowned. In March 1996, more than 100 people drowned when a ferry sank in the same general area.

Monday's accident was one of the worst international maritime disasters in years but only the latest mass loss of life in Haiti, which has been plagued by violence, illness and natural disasters.

With an annual per capita income estimated at less than $300, illiteracy pegged at well over 50% and about 70% of its workers unemployed, Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world.

"It's not just a ferry that is sinking," said Robert Rotberg, a professor at Harvard University's Institute for International Development.

"It is just one of many things where the difficult situation in Haiti causes one tragedy after another. When a country is poor, its ability to maintain its infrastructure and to prevent ferries from being overloaded and so on is limited by the economic reality," he said.

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