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#1715: Six reportedly died on Haiti boat voyage (fwd)
Published Wednesday, January 5, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Six reportedly died on Haiti boat voyage _____BY PETER WHORISKEY
Passengers aboard the treacherously overloaded Haitian migrant boat
intercepted near Key Biscayne on New Year's Day told Coast Guard
rescuers that as many as six people perished on the voyage. The bodies,
they said, were thrown overboard. The report of the deaths, which has
not been confirmed by authorities, came up during a brief conversation
between a rescuing Coast Guard crewman and two of the Haitians.
The Herald has learned that the crewman was Timothy Maleport, a Coast
Guard chief technician. He was overseeing 50 passengers on the main deck
of the cutter Maui on Saturday when a Haitian teenager approached.
``One of the young kids came up and asked if we had found any bodies
left on board the vessel,'' Maleport said. ``Through another man, who
was interpreting, I told him no and asked him why. He said his father
had passed away on the trip.'' Maleport said that the man who was
interpreting then told him that as many as six people had died in
transit and that the bodies had been thrown overboard. The other
passengers, most of whom are headed to Haiti to be repatriated today,
could not be reached to confirm the accounts. Four of them were being
held at Krome detention center.
The report of the deaths, if true, would underscore the harsh
conditions endured by the 411 passengers. They had been crammed onto a
boat 60 feet long and about 25 feet across. A video of the boat taken by
the Coast Guard and obtained by the Herald shows the squalid tight
quarters littered with clothing and food -- cornmeal, rice, eggs.
There were pots of urine and feces. There were no bathrooms on board,
the Coast Guard crews said. They had been at sea an estimated six days
or more. ``It was overwhelming,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Jorge Martinez,
who was in charge of the team that boarded the boat. ``There was
absolutely no room for anyone to move.'' Despite the squalor, however,
the migrants -- two of them Chinese, 16 Dominican and the rest Haitian
-- initially refused to leave the boat. The boat ran aground offshore
about two miles south of Key Biscayne. They could see land.
``They said, `We'd rather die than come off this boat,' '' Martinez
said. When the migrants decided to leave the boat, which was in danger
of overturning at low tide, five of the adults had to be carried,
Martinez said. Some were treated for dehydration. In 1995, in a 60-foot
Haitian migrant boat similarly overloaded with 450 passengers, three men
were found dead below decks, presumed to have been either crushed or
asphyxiated. ``You put someone under a strain like that -- definitely
[the deaths] could happen,'' Martinez said.
Some see the migrants desperation as a barometer of Haitian woe.
``When people try to come here legally, they are stonewalled,'' said
Cheryl Little, executive director, of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy
Center. ``So they resort to these desperate measures. That's what
happens.'' If, as immigration officials suspect, the voyage was
conducted by smugglers, each of the passengers had likely paid more than
$2,000 for the promise of U.S. landfall, judging by Border Patrol
statistics. While the large number of passengers and the international
mix on the boat indicate a smuggling ring, however, Border Patrol
investigators probably will not be able to assemble a case for
prosecution. ``When you have that large a group, I'm inclined to think
there was some chief organizer,'' said Dan Geoghegan, assistant chief of
the Miami office of the Border Patrol. ``But we interviewed most of the
aliens and there were conflicting stories. ``Some of the aliens said
they just collectively pooled their resources in a cooperative venture.
Some of the people said they paid people in Haiti. Some people said they
paid people in the Bahamas. ``They were largely uncooperative. Some of
them flatly refused to answer any questions.''
With most of the passengers headed back to Haiti, the incident has left
many in Miami wondering whether their relatives are on board. The INS
has not released the names of the intercepted people, citing safety
reasons. Nicole St. Juste of Miami said she received a call from
relatives in Haiti some time last week saying to be on the lookout for
the boat -- that she had approximately some 20 family members on board.
St. Juste said she wasn't told where in Haiti the boat was originating
or how much the voyage cost. ``They came in a boat for freedom and
liberty -- and then they sent them back,'' she said. ``I haven't been
able to eat for three days.''
Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.