Fear gripped the would-be migrants the moment they spotted what they would be traveling in for the next few days — a 25-foot, white recreational fishing boat.
The small craft, which would typically hold four to six people comfortably, would be ferrying the group of eight Haitians — plus the captain and his aide — some 730 miles over treacherous seas from Haiti’s neglected northwest coast to Miami. Already, the captain was asking them to leave personal belongings behind.
Even the captain’s cocky words as he walked through their rural Haitian village recruiting passengers and collecting passage fees in the days leading up to the ill-fated voyage provided little comfort: Everything would be fine, the man boasted. He had made this trip many times before.
“They fooled us,” said Louisias Pierre, one of several survivors plucked out of the waters off Miami Beach last month after the boat capsized, sending four Haitian women to their deaths.
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As South Florida’s Haitian community prepares to bury the victims of yet another deadly Haitian migrant smuggling voyage, Pierre recounted the events that prompted U.S. authorities to charge two of the 11 survivors with murder and four others with attempted smuggling and illegal reentry into the United States.
“There is a lot of misplaced trust,” said Miami lawyer Charles G. White, representing two of the migrants whose testimonies are being used by the U.S. government to help build a case against the six defendants.
The fatal trip is part of an all too familiar narrative: Haitians trust their lives to ruthless smugglers to bring them to South Florida’s shores and what they believe will be a better life.
Figures from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol show that the number of Haitians arriving and being detained is slowly inching up from an historic low following Haiti’s catastrophic Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. Still, U.S. immigration authorities don’t know for certain how many make it through and remain undiscovered.
U.S. authorities — concerned about the increase and the emergence of a dangerous new smuggling route through the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico — are discussing the launch of a public service campaign in Creole about the dangers of smuggling.
“Transnational criminal organizations have no regard for the lives of the people they smuggle,” said Elee Erice, Florida spokeswoman for Customs and Border Control.
The clandestine voyage began in the dark of night, from the coastal city of Port-de-Paix in northwest Haiti. Pierre traveled there from his nearby rural village of Saint-Louis-du-Nord.
Their Haitian boat captain, Wilbert, and his English-speaking aide promised they would transfer to a bigger boat once they arrived in the Bahamas, where they would be collecting additional passengers.
Pierre, a married father of five, said he paid Wilbert $5,000 for the trip, despite his family’s objections. He took a loan from a sister in Haiti, who put off home improvements and borrowed the rest.
“We kept asking, ‘Where is the other boat?’ ” Pierre said.
But there would be no other boat.
The faster they traveled on the high seas, the deeper their anxiety, Pierre said. The two men and six women quietly hatched a plan. The minute they reached the Bahamas, they would get off.
“We realized our lives were in danger,” said Pierre, foreshadowing the tragedy that awaited them.
When the boat finally slowed the next night, none of the passengers disembarked. It never pulled up to shore.
“There were no lights, no nothing. We didn’t know if we were in the Bahamas. We had no idea where we were,” Pierre said. Held prisoner by the unknown, they fearfully watched as silhouetted bodies walked through the water and boarded the boat.
“They just kept coming,” he said. “When they saw that we were standing, [our contact] screamed at us to get down. So everyone was forced to lay down in the bottom of the boat, so we couldn’t follow what was happening.”
Wilbert and another man remained behind, pushing the boat back into the waves as it took off for Miami.
As Pierre tells the story in a conference room at the Haitian Women of Miami organization, it is almost too much for Sinelia Escarment, 42, to bear. The group, along with State Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, has been helping the survivors get assistance to bury the dead.
Escarment’s sister Lodilia, the first to be buried Saturday, was among the four women whose bodies were pulled out of Government Cut.
“This is a huge burden every time family members are called under these circumstances,” said Escarment, a mother of three who earns $30 a day as a maid in the Bahamas. She rushed to Miami last week to see if her sister was among the 15 passengers.
Her worst fears were confirmed. Her baby sister Lodilia Escarment was among the dead. “This is a person who is only 36 years old, a mother with two children,” Escarment said.
As Escarment prepared to travel to Miami, a Haitian woman in the Bahamas hastily passed her a photo and asked if she could confirm whether the woman was among those on the boat.
It turned out to be a photo of the final victim. This week another relative came forward in Miami and attached a name to the woman in the photo: Kerline Mercy, 25.
Last week, a U.S. grand jury handed down a 24-count indictment charging Naaman Davis, 53, and George Lewis, 38, with murder. Davis also faces involuntary manslaughter charges and is accused of killing the women “without malice” while “operating a vessel in a grossly negligent manner.”
Two survivors, Vincent Anderson, a Jamaican, and Fallonne Alouidor, a Haitian woman, have both identified Davis, a Bahamian, as the captain and Lewis, a Jamaican, as his aide.
Key witnesses, Anderson and Alouidor remain in federal custody. White, the attorney representing both, said he doesn’t know if Pierre or the other Haitians — who have been paroled and now must launch a bid to remain in the United States — are also being considered as material witnesses by the U.S. attorney’s office.
Pierre said it is difficult to identify who was in charge because the migrants were kept away from the non-Haitians. They never turned around, he said, and only spoke English.
As the journey continued, Pierre suspects the boat may have run out of gas, causing the engines to cut off. During the entire voyage, the boat was never refueled.
As the boat near Miami Beach, it began taking on water. “When the water started entering, we took our hands and were scooping it up and throwing it out,” Pierre said.
Alouidor told investigators that after the boat began taking on water, the captain, “did nothing to assist and began smoking while instructing the other males onboard to try to get the water out.”
But the boat soon plunged beneath the waves, taking the Haitians down with it. Then it flipped over before floating back to the top.
At 1:01 a.m. on Oct. 16, Miami-Dade police received a 911 distress call from an unidentified man on the capsized boat. It was from one of the smugglers, Pierre said.
Pierre, who doesn’t know how to swim, said he survived by dog paddling and making breast stroke motions to bring his thin frame to the surface. Then he scrambled onto the overturned hull of the boat.
“If it were up to the Jamaicans and the Bahamian, all of us Haitians would have perished at sea,” Pierre said.
He said he ended up saving a teenage girl and Alouidor.
“She was crying, ‘Help me, Help me.’ Not one of them paid her any attention,” said Pierre, demonstrating how he grabbed Alouidor’s hand and later threw her a rope. “She kept crying, ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I can’t.’ ”
In the mayhem, Pierre lost his belongings, which were tucked inside a plastic bag. The contents included $70, out-of-date Haitian currency that he carried as a keepsake, a cellphone and various documents, including his voting card.
Days after the incident, an unknown woman in her 40s, fluent in French and possibly a Canadian, walked into the Haiti Consulate in Miami and turned in the bag, saying she found it floating in the waters of Biscayne Bay.
“She could have thrown it away,” said Pierre, showing off the contents. “But she didn’t. I am grateful and I pray that God blesses her.”