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Red Cross lowers estimate of Haitian ferry victims

Haitian Coast Guard September 9, 1997
Web posted at: 8:48 a.m. EDT (1248 GMT)

Latest developments:

MONTROUIS, Haiti (CNN) -- As divers prepared to resume their search Tuesday for those drowned in a ferryboat capsizing a day earlier, the Red Cross said many fewer people may have died in the accident than previously believed.

Red Cross officials said late Monday that 250 to 300 people were believed to be on board the passenger ferry when it turned over early Monday. So far, United Nations divers have recovered about 30 bodies; an estimated 60 to 100 passengers were said to have survived.

The exact number of victims and survivors has been in question ever since the accident.

Haitian police and coast guard officials had said earlier that about 700 people were on the ferry, and that as many as 400 had swam safely to shore. But some survivors said that at most, 60 survived. And a Haitian official said only 30 survivors were confirmed so far.

Peacekeepers

There were conflicting reports about the numbers of victims and survivors in part because accounts differed as to how many people had boarded the ferry.

The 60-foot vessel was certified to safely carry between 80 and 260 people, according to various estimates.

The ferry La Fierte Gonavienne, or The Pride of Gonave, sank just off the port of Montrouis, 50 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. It had left from Anse-a-Galets on Gonave Island, about 12 miles to the southwest.

As it reached Montrouis, a port on Haiti's central coast, the ferry turned so that passengers could transfer to rowboats to go ashore. Passengers rushed to one side of the ship, causing it to capsize, officials and survivors said.

Thousands of Haitians wailed in grief on the pebbled beach of the fishing village of Montrouis as U.N. divers and a half-dozen fishing boats searched offshore for victims. Others helped carry bodies from coast guard boats to shore.

U.S. Coast Guard and U.N. helicopters hovered above the spot where the ferry disappeared in 75 feet of water as hundreds of its passengers screamed below-decks.

Survivors: No life jackets, doors bolted

"The boat was overloaded. When it maneuvered to disembark, everybody ran to one side and the boat tipped over," said survivor Benjamin Joseph, a 38-year-old civil engineer.

Onlookers

The brand new ferry -- it had gone into service only 10 days earlier -- had no life jackets, and doors that were bolted shut prevented many passengers from escaping, Joseph and other survivors said.

Twenty-six bodies washed ashore shortly after the boat sank at 5 a.m. (0900 GMT), according to one report.

In Port-au-Prince, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Steve Banks said Haitian coast guard crews pulled 24 survivors and four bodies from the water.

United Nations divers recovered at least 24 more bodies in the water around the sunken ferry, and saw "between 40 and 50 bodies" in one compartment of the boat, U.N. spokeswoman Patricia Tome said.

Captain arrested, then released

The captain of the boat, a Cuban named Ramos Ingen, was accused by some survivors of locking many passengers in the bowels of the vessel. He was arrested by local police, held for his own security and then released.

"We did not realize he may have locked all those people inside," said St. Marc police officer Alain Charles.

The United States announced it was giving $25,000 to help relatives of disaster victims. U.S. Ambassador William Swing released a statement expressing "our deepest regret on the occasion of this tragic accident."

Thousands of Haitians regularly use coastal ferries that hug the mainland. Sea travel is a cheap and common means of transport in this poor, mountainous nation on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The highways, never good, have deteriorated over the years.

The boats, which also carry food to Gonave Island and charcoal to the mainland, are often overloaded.

In February 1993, an overloaded ferry carrying 1,000 people sank off Haiti's southern peninsula. At least 700 people drowned. In March 1996, more than 100 people drowned when a ferry sank in the same general area.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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