At least 15 Haitians dead after boat sinks off Turks and Caicos in shark-infested waters

The U.S. Coast Guard late Sunday suspended its search for Haitian migrants in the shark-infested waters off the Turks and Caicos Islands after reporting that 15 bodies had been recovered, and 14 survivors found. At least four bodies were still unaccounted for, the agency said in a tweet.

The Coast Guard had been providing assistance to the marine branch of the Royal Turks and Caicos Police, which spent the day scouring the turquoise waters for Haitian migrants. The search-and-rescue operation was launched sometime after 8 a.m. Sunday when police were alerted that a twin-engine outboard boat smuggling undocumented migrants from Haiti had capsized off West Caicos, an uninhabited island in the British overseas territory.

Prior to the Coast Guard’s announcement, Turks and Caicos police reported that they had rescued 14 individuals and recovered 14 bodies, which were found floating in the water head down. The search was suspended but would resume at daybreak on Monday, the police announced.

“Today we have utilized all of our marine components, with the support of other rescue services. The search and rescue operation is ongoing,” Acting Turks and Caicos Police Commissioner Trevor Botting said after four additional bodies and one other survivor were found shortly before 6 p.m. “We cannot tell when it will end as it will be determined by the number of recoveries we make over the next day or so.”

Botting said Sunday had been a difficult day.

“At this stage, it is unclear as to the total souls on board the vessel,” Botting said. “This is a tragic loss of life. We offer our condolences and sympathies to the families of those affected by this terrible incident. No journey is worth risking lives on the dangerous seas in these small vessels”.

Botting said the incident is now under investigation to establish the circumstances of the vessel’s voyage and what happened to the craft.

In February, Bahamian authorities recovered the bodies of 28 Haitians after a boat smuggling them sank off the northern Bahamas. Some 17 individuals were rescued and taken into police custody. In response to that tragedy at sea, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince launched a public service announcement warning Haitians not to risk their lives at sea.

Haiti has been mired in a worsening economic situation, which has stirred political tensions in recent weeks. The country’s prime minister was recently fired by the lower chamber of Deputies, and inflation is at the highest it has been in 11 years.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.