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#1798L Up to 10 died at sea; smugglers stood to make thousands (fwd)
Published Thursday, January 6, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Refugees returned to Haiti
Smugglers stood to make thousands of dollars from trip
Up to 10 died at sea; smugglers stood to make thousands
BY SANDRA MARQUEZ GARCIA
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Passengers arriving in Haiti Wednesday after the
ill-fated voyage toward Miami said as many as 10 passengers suffocated
or jumped overboard to escape the treacherous conditions aboard the
home-made fishing vessel. And the smugglers who ran the vessel, they
said, stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars from the trip.
For the 409 Haitians, Dominicans and Chinese who stepped off two U.S.
Coast Guard cutters at Haiti's main port Wednesday, it was the end of a
journey that took its toll in despair and death. Many of the repatriated
Haitians gave similar accounts of the doomed voyage that
began Dec. 28 from the isolated Tortue Island off Haiti's northwest
coast. Most of them paid a smuggler to make the trip, they said. The
going rate for the voyage, passengers said, was $5,000 in U.S. currency
-- half of it paid up front -- and the rest due upon arrival in Miami.
In Haiti, where the yearly per-capita income is the equivalent of
$1,300, the fare was beyond the means of the passengers. Many said they
received the money from relatives in the United States. But some never
made it within sight of the Florida coast. With hundreds of passengers
crammed into the lower hold of a boat 60 feet long by 25 feet wide,
some soon suffocated. Others went into a fit of panic.
Jean Claude Odalis, 21, an unemployed high school graduate from
Cap-Haitien, said two of his uncles perished at sea. ``Everyone who died
was thrown into the water,'' Odalis said. ``I believe eight people died.
Many people didn't even notice. They couldn't see.'' Odalis' maternal
uncle, Lexius, was among the first to go. After just one day at
sea, he could no longer bear the stifling conditions. Every time he
tried to go to the upper deck for air, one of the smugglers who stood
watch over the lower deck would shove him back down, Odalis said.
Eventually, Lexius went into a rage and pushed his way to the upper
deck, where he promptly plunged into the sea in Cuban waters, Odalis
Another uncle, known as ``Ti Joe'' suffocated in the lower hold on Dec.
31 as they approached the Florida coast, Odalis said. No one can say
with certainty how many died at sea. Several repatriated passengers
estimated the death toll between six and ten. Lt. Commander Todd Gatlin,
the top U.S. Coast Guard official in Haiti, said local migration
officials would interview the returning passengers to better learn the
circumstances of the voyage. ``The Haitian coast guard will look into
it, but quite honestly, we will never know,'' Gatlin said. ``There are
people that die on these trips -- more than we would ever like to
BODY FOUND IN SEA
In Miami, the body of an unidentified black male, approximately 20
years old, turned up in the ocean on Wednesday near Fowey Rocks, about
nine miles south of Key Biscayne. It was sighted by a passing fisherman.
The body had no clothes and no identifying papers. Authorities don't
know whether he was a passenger on the ill-fated voyage. Four Haitian
women -- three pregnant and one with a high fever -- remained
hospitalized in Miami but were expected to be repatriated later.
News of the voyage has left Haitians in Miami wondering about the fate
of their sea-going relatives. ``I felt like dying when I heard my son
was on the boat and now I don't even know anything about him,'' said
Villard St. Juste, 34, of Cap-Haitien, who has lived in Miami for about
three years. He believes his son and his son's mother were on
the boat. At the wharf in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, officials gave
389 Haitians $11.75 each to get home by bus. The hundreds of people who
risked their lives on the rickety vessel shared a common dream: To start
a new life in a new country during a new century.
COUNTED ON LENIENCY
It was not by accident that they should make their dramatic appearance
off Key Biscayne on New Year's Eve. The freedom seekers said the plan
had been to glide into Miami undetected under the cover of fireworks and
New Year's revelry. In the event that they did get caught, they hoped
for leniency from U.S. officials because of the significance of the
occasion: The new millennium coincided with the Haitian Independence Day
of Jan. 1.
Word of the voyage soon spread. Passengers from around Haiti and the
Dominican Republic made their way on buses and small skiffs to Tortue
Island,where the boat -- which many passengers said was stolen -- docked
for several days waiting to fill up. Two Chinese citizens who arrived in
Haiti by plane with passports and visas also tried their luck,
passengers said. It was the second attempt for Rene Fatal, 32, of
Leogane. Unemployed for two years, Fatal said he was desperate to find a
way to support his common-law wife and their child. For a brief moment,
he thought his effort had paid off. ``This time, we reached land,'' he
said. ``I could see all the houses.''SHORT-LIVED HOPE
The boat actually had run aground just two miles offshore near Key
Biscayne. That moment made the risky journey worthwhile for Yves
Pamphile, 26: ``At midnight, we saw all the fireworks. It was very
beautiful,'' Pamphile said. ``It was the most important experience in my
life. I felt hope. I saw Miami Beach.'' Despite the tragic outcome,
none of the repatriated passengers denounced the smugglers to Haitian
authorities upon their return. Those who spoke with reporters
said they didn't blame them for what happened on the boat.
``They shouldn't go to prison. They had the same objectives as us -- to
search for a better life,'' said Nadine Pamphile, 18, a student from
Port-au-Prince who made the journey with her father and brother Yves.
``We are no better than them.'' Even Odalis, who lost his two relatives,
harbored no resentment. He said a well-known smuggler had organized the
trip with three others -- all of whom were believed to have slipped off
of the U.S. cutter Valiant and walked away. Odalis refused to identify
the main smuggler. ``He's popular. I can't give you his name. He's from
Tortue Island.'' Some of the repatriated passengers may face jail time.
The 14 Dominicans who were returned Wednesday were transported to the
Dominican border, to be handed over to immigration officials.
The two Chinese passengers and a Haitian who requested political asylum
upon his return to Haiti, were not immediately released Wednesday
pending interviews with INS officials on a vessel at sea.
Pamphile was one of the upset people: ``Everyone asked for an
interview,'' Pamphile said. ``They didn't give it to us.'' U.S. Embassy
spokesman Dan Whitman said the mass repatriation marked the single
largest return of Haitians in more than a year. ``We take no pleasure in
repatriating people who want to be elsewhere,'' Whitman said. ``We do
not see people on the boat as criminals. We do see as criminals those
people who exploit them by taking their money, putting them into
perilous crossings on the high seas and as often as not, just abandoning
Herald staff writers Peter Whoriskey and Hans Mardy contributed to this