Shana Baptiste was fighting to swim to safety in rough waters when she decided to turn back. Her four younger siblings needed her. As she struggled to rescue them from a sinking boat in the waters off the island of Abaco in the Bahamas, she too would perish.
Born in the Bahamas of Haitian parents, the 18-year-old high schooler was among the victims of Sunday’s Haitian boat tragedy. The story of her death was recalled Tuesday by her uncle who told The Miami Herald that he and his wife lost nine family members aboard the 28-foot boat known as the Glory Time.
“We are in shock,” he said, speaking from the Bahamas on the condition of anonymity because he feared prosecution by authorities. As he spoke on the telephone, his wife’s anguished wails could be heard in the background. “She still has not accepted it.”
Eleven bodies have been recovered, and U.S. Coast Guard and Bahamian authorities continued to comb Bahamian waters Tuesday looking for missing Haitians who were aboard the overcrowded, 28-foot motorized boat that sank Sunday night while en route to Florida. It is presumed a dozen people are missing.
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At least five passengers, all Haitian men living illegally in the Bahamas, were able to swim to shore safety, Bahamian police said. Police are trying to determine if one of them was the organizer of the expedition. Eight people believed to be associated with the ill-fated trip are being held for questioning, National Security Minister Bernard Nottage told members of parliament Tuesday.
Nottage said the incident “speaks to the on-going challenges we face with the illegal smuggling of migrants into and from The Bahamas... I trust that this unfortunate incident would further buttress the resolve of all right thinking persons to do all that is possible to bring an end to the smuggling of persons to and through our waters.”
Authorities were first informed of the incident in an anonymous phone call Monday, said Nottage.
A Haitian Bahamian, who was aboard the boat, later told police the craft was headed to Florida with 28 people aboard. The journey began somewhere in Treasure Cay.
“The gentleman further reported that he believed each person paid a total of $5,000 per head for the journey,” Nottage said. “Sometime after 8 p.m. on the same day they began experiencing engine problems when one of the engines kept cutting off, which slowed the vessel down.”
“The vessel eventually capsized and everyone began to scramble to save their lives,” he said. “He reported he did his best to save other persons but the sea was too rough so he had to save his own life.”
Shana’s uncle said that one of the survivors told the story of her bravery, and subsequent death. Still unclear is whether her father “Chancy” made it. He is a diver, said the uncle, who made the decision “to go to Miami with the children” despite objections.
“I told him, ‘Do it the legal way. Let’s go and get their documents in order and apply for a visa.’ He didn’t want to listen. He said he couldn’t wait,’” the uncle recalled. He learned of the tragedy, he said, in a phone call Monday, minutes after noon. The children’s mother is in Haiti, where she returned because of illness, and has no idea that the children are dead, the uncle said.
Since last October, the U.S. Coast Guard has prevented 823 Haitians from reaching the United States by sea, an increase from 769 interdicted during the same period last year, according to its website. In December, the Cuban government said 38 Haitian migrants died and 87 others were rescued after a boat sank off the island’s eastern coast.
Antonio Rodrigue, Haiti’s ambassador to the Bahamas, said the increase in Haitians being interdicted at sea and Sunday’s tragedy are not a reflection of life back in Haiti.
“Haitians want to go to the United States. Families arrange for them to go to the Bahamas and then to the U.S.,” he said. “This is not the first time we’ve had an incident like this.”
He said the Haitians on the boat “came from all over.” Some, like Shana’s family, had been living in the Bahamas for 20 years. Others had recently arrived from Haiti, hoping to make it to the United States.
Illegal Haitian smuggling operations out of the Bahamas, and particularly Abaco, are fairly common, Rodrigue said, and he confirmed that last week a wooden sloop, arriving from Haiti, was able to drop off undocumented Haitians in the Turks and Caicos undetected.
For now the bodies are in the morgue, said Rodrigue. “We’re waiting,” he said. “We don’t know if families will claim the bodies.” If they do not, burying the victims could fall on the shoulders of the cash-strapped Haitian government.
Both Haiti’s president and prime minister issued condolences to the families of the victims Tuesday. President Michel Martelly called on "Haitian citizens to avoid putting themselves at risk by using illegal channels” to travel to foreign countries.
Marleine Bastien, the director of Haitian Women of Miami, said that she was “shocked and concerned” that people were once again trying to make the dangerous journey to the United States. She said Haitians need more legal options to enter the country so they won’t take the risk of paying people smugglers for their passage.
She and other Haitian advocates have been pushing for the Haitian Family Reunification Parole program, proposed legislation modeled after a similar program that allows Cubans to come to this country while their visas are being processed.
“We want to send the message to people in Haiti to not risk their lives,” Bastien said. “We do not want to lose more brothers and sisters.”