CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti – There was no warning when the overloaded sailboat plowed into a coral reef and began to break apart. In the darkness, some 200 migrants were plunged into the water, grabbing desperately at anything that might help keep them afloat.
Joanel Pierre, a skinny 18-year-old, lifted his grey T-shirt on Wednesday to display the scratches clawed into his body by drowning shipmates.
“The ones who knew how to swim, swam,” he told The Associated Press, speaking quietly and averting his eyes.
“The ones who didn’t, died.”
Fifteen bodies had been recovered Wednesday, and another 70 people remained missing as the U.S. Coast Guard warned that prospects for finding more survivors were becoming dim. And the 118 who had already been rescued began to tell the story of their doomed voyage.
The blue-and-white sailboat set out before dawn Saturday filled with people from miserably poor northern Haiti. Their families had saved up $500 apiece to send them to what Haitians call “the other side of the water.”
In this case the destination was the Turks and Caicos Islands, a tourism-dependent British territory where there are jobs in construction and maintenance – and sometimes, a little hope for a better future. Pierre hoped to work as a mechanic.
The boat was jam-packed with people. Men filled the deck, exposed to the hot sun, while women and men alike filled the dark, nearly airless hold below, survivors later told rescuers. Pierre said the hold was packed so tight that nobody could lie down.
During the two-day journey, the migrants ate twice, they said – rice and beans both times. There was also water aboard.
About 10 p.m. Sunday, Pierre clambered onto deck for some fresh air, and was rewarded with a welcome sight: the lights of Providenciales gleaming on the horizon.
But before he could savour the moment there was a powerful jolt and a skidding sensation, “like a car had blown its tire,” Pierre said. The hold began to splinter as the waves smashed the vessel against a reef, survivors said. People spilled into the water.
“People started yelling, ‘God help me!”‘ Pierre said.
Pierre spoke Wednesday in Cap-Haitien, the northern Haitian city where he and dozens of other survivors were flown back from the Turks and Caicos. Others were still being held in a gym in Providenciales, while the worst-off were being treated at a hospital there.
Like most of those who made it, Pierre managed to swim through 6-foot swells to the jagged reef that sank the boat and clung to it for his life. The sun was scorching, and there was no food or water.
“We were hungry, thirsty, uncomfortable,” he said. “We went through every misery at once.”
Others held onto to pieces of the boat – all that remained of the homemade craft – terrified as they drifted that their bleeding wounds would attract the black tip and tiger sharks that come to the area to eat snappers, the fish that spawn there in the summer.
Early Monday, a boat passed nearby. Survivors waved and screamed, but it didn’t veer from its course, said rescuer Dja Castel, recounting what survivors told him. Many gave themselves up for dead.
By the time the first rescuers arrived, the survivors had been in the 15-foot-deep water for 17 hours, and nobody was strong enough to scream.
Castel, who was on a boat in the area, spotted a red piece of clothing waving in the wind – someone’s shirt. As he approached, he couldn’t make out people amid the wreckage of the boat.
Eventually the rescuers spotted a man clinging to a piece of wood. Two others were trying to swim toward a reef where about 20 people clung to the coral.
The rescuers threw a rope to one of the swimmers and pulled him aboard. The other swimmer was going under, and Castel dived in to help. The swimmer’s arms flailed in the waves.
“He was fighting the water,” Castel said.
On the boat, Castel gave the man mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Water poured from his nose and mouth and ran down the sides of his face.
After 10 minutes, the crew pronounced the man dead and turned their attention back to the living.
Some on the reef were wearing only their underwear.
“They looked like someone who had lost hope,” Castel said.
He said it was easy to get them aboard: “It was like you use a net to catch fish. All of them came together.”
The parched survivors gave their thanks to God.
At a government clinic in Providenciales, doctors hooked IV drips to survivors’ arms. The patients, many bleeding, cried out in weak voices in pain and for the people they had lost.
“They were so dehydrated they looked like mummies,” said Robert K. Houseman, a local photographer.
Back in Cap-Haitien on Wednesday, relatives gathered at the airport to meet returning survivors being flown home by Turks and Caicos immigration authorities.
Pierre, who was reunited with his mother, said for all the horrors of the voyage he was still desperate to get out of Haiti, where 80 per cent of the people survive on less than $2 a day.
“I’m not going on the water again,” he said. “But if God made it possible for me to get a plane ticket, I would go.”
Kay reported from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos.