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Death Toll Lowered In Sunken Haitian Ferry Canadian Divers Dispute Reports Of Massive Overcrowding

Wed., Sept. 10, 1997, midnight

Divers saw more than 100 bodies trapped on two decks of a sunken ferry Tuesday. They disputed earlier accounts that as many as 400 people may have died, saying the number is closer to 250.

On shore, diesel fumes and the sickening stench of death pervaded the pebbled beach where thousands of people gathered, many crying out as bodies were recovered and wrapped in transparent plastic bags.

“Everybody is in mourning. Everybody has somebody close who went down,” said Simon Lapointe, mayor of the Gonave island town of Anse Agalets, the departure point for the ill-fated Haitian ferry.

President Rene Preval, who visited the site Tuesday, blamed Haiti’s poverty for the calamity, saying that if this eastern fishing village had a dock, the disaster might have been averted. The ferry, anchored 200 yards from shore, toppled Monday as passengers raced en masse to one side in a rush to get off.

But Canadian divers from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti said Tuesday there was no evidence of massive overcrowding on the Pride of Gonave, contradicting initial police and coast reports that put the passenger count at up to 800.

“There just weren’t that many,” said Cpl. Donald Candie, one of the Canadian divers.

Officials said 276 tickets were sold for the ferry - a new, three-deck metal boat purchased in Miami. Fifty survivors swam to shore Monday.

Divers recovered 99 bodies Monday and Tuesday, according to the United Nations. They counted 100-115 bodies floating in the two lower decks of the ferry Tuesday.

Survivors say the boat’s doors had been locked after it departed to prevent passengers from rushing off, leaving those on board no way out once the vessel began to tip. The ferry had no life jackets.

“Everybody wanted to get off at the same time,” said Gabriel Louisne, 69, the port master of Montrouis. Many survivors were saved by the row boats that typically paddle out to meet the ferry and take its passengers to shallow waters.

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