BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
ISABELA, Puerto Rico -- It was their best shot at the American
Dream, so the
desperate Dominican migrants packed the 23-foot boat so tightly they had to sit
in fetal positions. Instead, the trip turned into a nightmare.
``When we sank, a rope caught my ankle and pulled me under, said
Vazquez, one of the 27 confirmed survivors of the shipwreck Wednesday off a
Puerto Rican beach. Ten others drowned and 37 are missing.
``I prayed to my dead father, `Papi, you who are already dead,
keep me from
joining you,' and the rope let go, Vazquez said Thursday. ``I lived, but my
sister-in-law, Maria, and a lot of other people went under.
Two other survivors showed red scratches on their arms where other
clawed at them to stay afloat, and speculated that some of the missing were
attacked by two large sharks that were trailing the boat.
For the fourth time in a year, the 80 miles of ocean separating
Republic and Puerto Rico have claimed the lives of poor Dominicans trying to
sneak into wealthier U.S. territory. The estimated toll so far: 86 drowned.
Mystery still surrounds the fate of 34 passengers and three smugglers
from Wednesday's shipwreck and initially believed to have drowned in the surf
pounding the beaches of Isabela, 80 miles west of San Juan.
Two helicopters, a police boat and five police divers searching
the area Thursday
found the wreckage of the wooden boat under 20 feet of water. But they
discovered no bodies beyond the 10 recovered the previous day.
``Either it's not true that there were 74 people on the boat or
most of them swam
ashore and escaped, said search director Lt. Luis A. Santiago, head of the Puerto
Rican police marine unit in the nearby city of Aguadilla.
Santiago called off the search Thursday morning, hoping that calmer
might allow his divers to better scour the shallow waters and rocky outcrops
DETAILS OF TRIP
Survivors insist there were 71 passengers and three crew members
tell a detailed if sometimes confused tale of a trip that went smoothly until their
boat was 100 yards from their destination.
The lure is simple: Although the Dominican economy has boomed
per capita income there still stands at $1,600, compared to $8,817 for Puerto
Rico. And from Puerto Rico, migrants can also easily fly to the U.S. mainland.
An estimated 100,000 Dominicans live on the island of four million
legally and illegally, said Deputy Dominican Consul Maximo Taveras.
Most of the survivors from Wednesday's shipwreck, detained at
Immigration and Naturalization Service compound in Aguadilla, come from the
northwestern Dominican Republic, a poor agricultural region largely untouched by
the country's recent economic progress.
``My husband is a tobacco farmer, and he had to burn the crop
last year because
no one was buying, complained Nelsida Martinez, 25, who left her husband and
two children, ages 5 and 3, in her village of Villa Vazquez, hoping to land a job as
a maid in Puerto Rico.
Ana Grullon, 32, said there were no jobs at all in her village
of Guayabin, near the
border with Haiti. And Julie Vazquez said she had to find some way to feed and
clothe her girls, 8 and 5, and 5-month old boy.
``I dropped out of high school in the second grade. What good
is an education if
there are no jobs? And in my country there are just no opportunities at all,
The women said they each paid 12,000 Dominican pesos, about $725,
for a seat
aboard a 23-foot boat, powered by a single 65-horsepower outboard motor, that
left Tuesday at about 1 a.m. from a point near the eastern tip of the Dominican
``The 19 women were loaded first, then the men, in groups of 10.
We were so
many that we had to sit like this, said Vazquez, curling up into a fetal position.
The crossing of the Mona Passage, where the waters of the Atlantic
Caribbean usually clash and whip up huge waves, went surprisingly well -- ``flat,
as though the ocean had been ironed, Vazquez said.
But 100 yards off the Isabela beach, at about 2 a.m. Wednesday,
knocked two of the boat's 19 female passengers overboard, the women recalled.
The captain swung the boat around to pick up the women, but the motor stalled
and the boat started drifting into a rocky section of the beach.
The captain and his two crewmen jumped overboard and swam to shore,
survivors recalled with disgust. Panic and the huge waves near shore rapidly filled
``Everyone was shouting `sit down,' `move to the left,' `move
to the other side,'
Grullon recalled. ``Then a wave tipped us, just 30 feet from shore. Everyone was
thrashing around, and then they started to go under.
END OF ORDEAL
Grullon said she floated to shore on one of nine plastic fuel
drums on board.
Vazquez grabbed a backpack that was floating nearby. Martinez said she does
not know how to swim, but somehow made it to the beach.
``By the time I got to the sand, there were already three bodies
washed up on the
shore, Vazquez said.
It was a familiar story. Since Feb. 7 of last year, 86 illegal
are believed to have drowned in four shipwrecks of smugglers' boats off the Puerto
Rican or Dominican coasts.
Increased U.S. Coast Guard and Dominican navy patrols of the Mona
since the mid-1990s have slowed the flow of undocumented Dominicans. As a
result, deportations of Dominicans, which averaged 3,500 a year in the
mid-1980s, now average 1,500 a year, INS Puerto Rico spokesman Ivan Ortiz
Yet the lure of Puerto Rico remains strong.
As handcuffed survivors of the latest shipwreck stood in line
waiting to be
deported later Thursday on an American Eagle flight from San Juan to Santo
Domingo, an INS guard jokingly asked if they planned to come back.
``For sure, said a grinning Dominican man in his early 20s. ``For sure, for sure.
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald