September 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Overloaded Ferry Sinks Rushing Crowd Tips Boat: Estimates Of Deaths Range Into Hundreds

Knight-Ridder
 

A grossly overloaded ferry sank in Haiti on Monday as passengers rushing to disembark tipped the vessel just off shore. About 100 people were reported drowned, but scores of sobbing survivors insisted that hundreds more went down with the ferry.

“I dove down 85 feet but a door was closed. There was no way to get in and get to the people. They were screaming, but I could not do anything for them,” said Chesner Alfred, who said he also saw 10 adults and children drown on the surface.

The 60-foot ferry, just brought from Miami, was certified to carry only 80 passengers. But its owner and captain, Edner Dorival, a Miami Lakes resident, claimed he had 260 passengers and survivors said it was carrying at least 700 people.

“When we arrived everyone wanted to leave at the same time,” said Dorival. “I tried to calm them down. I tried to tell them to sit down, but this is Haiti. Everyone stood up.”

“I can’t blame anyone except the people themselves,” said Dorival, who was being detained by police. He denied survivors’ accounts that the ship had as many as 700 passengers.

One man who lost 10 family members, including three sisters, said he was in a passenger compartment below decks when the weight of all the people on one side of the boat began lifting the other side.

“I ran upstairs and that’s all I remember. Whatever happened, I thank God because I am alive,” said Ifoquet Doravil, in his mid-30s.

Haitian officials said Coast Guard ships and scuba divers among the U.N. peacekeeping troops in Haiti had picked up 26 bodies after the gleaming white steel ferry capsized and sank just off Montrouis, 50 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince.

Divers reported “they saw a lot more bodies inside,” Haitian Coast Guard Capt. Leon Charles said. Haitian police in Montrouis said they expected to recover another 70 to 80 bodies on Tuesday.

U.S. Coast Guard ships and helicopters rushed to the scene to help rescue survivors but left after it became clear there were few people to be rescued and massive confusion about the death toll, U.S. Coast Guard officials said in Miami.

The sinking at around 6 a.m. Monday brought back horrible memories of the ferry Neptune, which killed around 700 people - the exact toll was never known - when it went down in 1993 just two miles off the Haitian coast. And last year, more than 100 people drowned when a ferry sank off Haiti.

The Pride of Gonaives, which began passenger trips in Haiti only 11 days ago, had just left Anse-a-Galets on Gonave Island, about 12 miles to the southwest of Montrouis, on one of its regular cargo and passenger shuttles.

Haitian officials initially told the U.S. Coast Guard that the ship was carrying up to 700 passengers and that hundreds had drowned when it sank just before it began transferring passengers to small rowboats for the shuttle to shore.

Haitian officials later claimed that 400 swam to safety, a credible figure since the sea was calm at the time, light was good and most ferry passengers hurry to the decks as they approach docks to be first off, and still later cut the possible death toll to about 100.

But survivors on the Montrouis beach insisted to foreign reporters that only a maximum of 60 people had survived and that 300 to 400 people had gone down with the ship, which they said carried no life preservers and in which some passenger compartments had been locked.

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