By YVES COLON and ANDRES VIGLUCCI
Herald Staff Writers
All day long, Haitian immigrants who believe their relatives were among
people lost at sea in a weekend smuggling disaster streamed in to a small
community center in Delray Beach on Monday, clutching photographs and clinging
to the slim hope that their loved ones are alive.
Or at the very least that their bodies would be recovered for burial.
There was, sad to say, no news on either count.
``I don't know whether she was there, whether she is alive,'' said a blank-faced
Marie-Denise Bastien, who fears her 21-year-old sister was one of the two
women whose bodies were found at sea by the Coast Guard on Saturday. ``I'm
just trying to find out. I have very little hope.''
In response to pleas from South Florida's Haitian community, the Coast
sent a helicopter aloft Monday afternoon to search between Florida and the
Bahamas, where two small boats carrying the Haitians are believed to have sunk.
But Coast Guard officials, who had suspended an intensive air-and-sea search
after midnight Saturday, said they saw nothing by early evening Monday. Although
they planned to launch another chopper for a night search, they said the medical
probability of finding anyone alive was nil.
However, investigators trying to learn who was behind the ill-fated smuggling
venture were following a tantalizing lead: two trucks with empty boat trailers
discovered at what may have been the launch point on Grand Bahama Island.
Investigators were also looking into a report from the Bahamas of an overdue boat
that matches the description given by survivors of one of the smuggling vessels.
Authorities believe the two boats -- about 20 feet and 17 feet -- were
together, but say that contradictory versions from the three survivors have made it
difficult to ascertain details.
One survivor, in a telephone interview Monday from the Krome immigration
detention center, insisted the boat he took left from Haiti, not the Bahamas. He
met a survivor in the water in the pitch dark as they clung to a piece of debris, but
he didn't know if the other man was from a second vessel.
``I don't know anything about a second boat,'' said Peter Pierre, 26. ``There
have been a second boat, but I did not see it.''
Pierre said he was in a gas-powered wooden boat carrying about 25 other
that left his hometown of St. Marc in western Haiti on Feb. 28. The boat stopped
in several places to refuel, but he did not know where. Nor did he know the
names of his fellow passengers, he said.
The dearth of information sowed anxiety among those waiting for news at
Haitian American Community Council in Delray Beach.
Like others gathered at the council's offices in a small house by the railroad
Bastien first heard the news of the sinking in a frantic call from Haiti: Her sister,
Guerline Joseph, left home Feb. 20 bound for Florida and had not been heard
Her family fears the worst. In an interview on Creole-language radio, one
survivors, Yvon Pierre-Louis, said he had tried to save a young woman on his
boat who was from the small town of Pont Benoit, in Haiti's agricultural Artibonite
That is her family's hometown, said Bastien, 27, who came from Haiti on
just four months ago, following the same time-tested smuggling route through the
Bahamas that investigators believe the doomed group used.
But Bastien, anxiously wringing her hands in her lap, said she tried to
sister not to come, telling her how terrified she was when the boat carrying her
stalled for three days at sea. So did the younger woman's fiance, Fremio Basse, a
legal resident alien who told her to wait for a visa.
``She was hot to leave,'' he said. ``She went to wait in line for the visa,
and it didn't
work out. When I called her back in Haiti recently, she told me she was trying to
go the shorter route.''
The weekend's tragedy comes amid a sharp rise in the numbers of Haitians
Cubans apprehended at sea by the Coast Guard or making land on South Florida
shores. Advocates say a political crisis in Haiti, complicated by worsening crime
and job opportunities, are driving many to place their fate in smugglers' hands.
In the Artibonite valley, Bastien said, Hurricane Georges decimated farmlands
year, forcing many to emigrate.
The Coast Guard was alerted to Saturday's disaster at 2 a.m., when sailors
Malta-registered Tomis Faith radioed that they heard screams in the water.
Authorities initially said survivors claimed that a boat carrying 18 people started
taking on water.
But Coast Guard spokesman Marcus Woodring said Monday there may actually
have been a fire on that boat. A second boat traveling with the first group, and
carrying 20 men and five women, came over to help, he said. When passengers on
the first boat boarded the second, it sank in the 70-degree water.
By 8:30 a.m., the Coast Guard had rescued three men and recovered two bodies.
Two other bodies were sighted, but sank. At midnight, after concluding that
anyone in the water that long would have perished of hypothermia, Woodring said,
the Coast Guard called off the search.
That decision came under heated criticism Monday from Haitian community
advocates, who accused the Coast Guard in a private meeting of discriminating
against Haitian refugees by suspending the search sooner than they would have for
``That is absolutely ridiculous,'' Woodring said. ``The Coast Guard does
discriminate. I was stunned.''
Woodring also noted that, as a matter of policy, the Coast Guard searches
for survivors, not bodies.
``They were not happy with that policy,'' Woodring said, referring to the
``We search for people who may be alive. We cannot search for bodies. It would
be an impossibility to do that with the resources that we have.''
In a gesture of goodwill, he said, the Coast Guard agreed to launch two
helicopters, one equipped with special night-vision equipment.
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald