September 13, 1997 in Nation/World

Haitian Rage Puts Leader On Defensive Families Of Ferry Victims Decry Slow Recovery Of Bodies

Ray Sanchez Newsday
 

At the rocky shore near the wreckage of the ill-fated ferry Pride of La Gonave, Haitian President Rene Preval on Friday witnessed the rage of the victims’ relatives toward his government.

“This would not have happened under Duvalier,” Jetta La Pierre shouted at the president, referring to the dreaded dictatorship that once ruled Haiti with terror. “Long live Duvalier!”

“Preval, you have no shame,” another woman yelled as the democratically elected president attempted to appease the crowd with words spoken through a barely audible megaphone. “Do you see our misery?”

A team of 20 U.S. Navy divers arrived to help retrieve the rest of the bodies from their watery grave. But the relatives were not appeased.

The ferry sinking at dawn Monday, Haiti’s sixth such disaster in five years, claimed more than 200 lives near the shores of Montrouis, about 50 miles north of the capital of Portau-Prince. But the nearly paralyzed government’s inability to recover all of the victims’ bodies has angered many Haitians who view Preval’s administration as inept.

More than two dozen bloated and decomposing bodies rose to the water’s surface Friday - some of them visible as Preval toured the scene.

For the first time since the accident, Preval - who visited the scene Tuesday with members of his Cabinet but without meeting relatives of the dead - addressed the angry throng that has been gathered on the beach for days. “Our government does not have the logistical means to handle this emergency alone,” said Preval. “It is not as easy as you think.”

The Navy divers, including a handful who helped search for bodies after the TWA Flight 800 disaster last year off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., began evaluating the wreckage and removing more bodies Friday. But, as the villagers grow increasingly frustrated with authorities, U.S. officials said the bulk of their efforts would not begin until Monday.

U.S. officials said they have not been able to determine how many passengers were trapped in the vessel. Earlier estimates of the dead ranged from 200 to 800.

More than 60 people survived the accident, and hundreds more were missing, their bodies believed to be trapped inside or under the ship. The apparently overcrowded ferry was traveling from the nearby island of La Gonave to Montrouis when it sank.

Aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Confidence, Preval, members of the diving team, several reporters and three relatives of the victims were shown blurred video images taken from the underwater tomb. One woman, her arms floating above her head, could be seen amid the tropical fish inside the 60-foot vessel. The feet of a passenger crushed under the hull of the vessel protruded onto the ocean floor. Several bodies appeared to be entangled in the ferry’s spiral staircase.

U.S. Col. Jon Stull, head of the U.S. Support Group in Haiti, said divers were awaiting equipment that would increase their dive time from 15 minutes to roughly half an hour. But he warned that the vessel, submerged in 120 feet of water, was resting on a steep incline and was in danger of slipping deeper into the ocean. Bulldozers and air bags will be used in an attempt to lift and pull the ferry closer to shore, he said.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email