A crowded, wooden sloop that capsized Christmas Day off Turks and Caicos Islands, killing 17 Haitian migrants, may have toppled when panicked passengers, some headed to Miami, overloaded one side as they tried to flee from police, authorities said Thursday.
A fledgling investigation is under way to determine how the boat buckled and the circumstances surrounding the suspected human smuggling mission. Meanwhile, authorities ended rescue efforts Thursday and tried to identify those who died, survived and escaped once ashore.
“Police and immigration officials are interviewing people arrested and subsequently detained,” government spokesman Neil Smith said. “At the moment, it appears that unfortunately the people on the vessel contributed to the incident. But there are other options and the investigation will look into that.”
Among them: whether the Christmas Day tragedy was in any way caused or exacerbated by TCI police, who’d intercepted the boat several miles off Providenciales and were towing it back to a commercial port. The incident was similar to a deadly vessel collapse six years ago involving a Haitian migrant vessel being towed by Turks and Caicos police.
Early indications from Wednesday’s incident were that as many as 55 people were on board the vessel, which left Haiti on Sunday, according to Haitian Consul General Karlo Pelissier.
Pelissier said he spoke with the 33 survivors at the immigration removal center where they were being held. He said they came from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and from the northern town of Cap-Haitien.
Pelissier said the 28-foot sloop left from Port-de-Paix and stopped at Ile de la Tortue, a small island on the northwest side of Haiti that has become a popular jumping-off point for human smuggling missions. The vessel then left for Turks and Caicos, a British territory about 100 miles north of Haiti and roughly 600 miles southeast of Miami.
The route is the same taken by an ill-fated vessel that capsized in November off the Bahamas, killing at least 30, and another that capsized several miles off Miami Beach in October, killing four women.
Pelissier said Thursday that the 33 survivors of Wednesday’s incident told him they paid between $500 and $1,000 to board the vessel. Some believed they were headed to the Bahamas, and others to Miami, he said.
“They fool these people to make them believe they’ll have a better life outside Haiti,” Pelissier said.
After three days at sea, marine police with Turks and Caicos stopped the crowded vessel about 3:30 a.m. almost seven miles off Providenciales, the nation’s most populated island. Police towed the boat toward shore for about two hours.
But about 5:15 a.m., as the two boats were almost to shore, the sloop capsized when witnesses said passengers aboard the already overburdened vessel moved to one side, presumably to jump into the water and escape detention.
A “handful” of migrants, perhaps four or five, were believed to have made it to shore and escaped. Another 33, including one 12-year-old boy, were rescued and detained by police and rescue crews. But 17 died, leading Haitian President Michel Martelly to issue a statement Thursday, offering “deepest sympathies to the families of the victims.”
“On this sad occasion, the President of the Republic once again urges his countrymen to avoid risking their lives on the high seas through makeshift boats,” he said.
Wednesday’s deadly capsizing was reminiscent of May 2007, when a vessel being towed by Turks and Caicos police overturned, killing at least 60 migrants. After the incident, several migrants said TCI police had rammed their overloaded boat twice before trying to tow it.
British investigators found that the allegations were unsubstantiated, saying there was no visible collision damage to the overturned sloop. But they criticized TCI police, saying officers could have prevented the deaths at sea if they were better trained and had proper equipment.
Pelissier said he doesn’t have any concerns about the way police handled Wednesday’s incident.
“From the information that I have from the police and from the passengers, it seems people were trying to get off the boat and when they went to one side, the weight of the people” caused the sloop to capsize, he said. “I don’t think it was the police from Turks and Caicos.”
Still, South Florida activist Marleine Bastien called for a thorough investigation.
“We have questions about what happened last night and would like more answers,” she said. “But we also would like to know what will happen to the survivors.”
Turks and Caicos authorities released a statement Thursday saying the survivors would be questioned then repatriated to Haiti. Pelissier, however, said those in detention claimed to not know the smugglers who helped them leave Haiti, likely because they fear being killed when they return to the country.
As for the dead, autopsies were to be conducted to determine how the victims died and their bodies were also to be repatriated.
Wednesday’s deadly incident brought the number of Haitian migrants killed since August to more than 50. The International Organization for Migration said Thursday that the 17 migrants who died brought the number of international migrant deaths this year to a new record of 2,378.