A boat overloaded with around 30 people, possibly Haitians being smuggled to the U.S. from their desperately poor country, sank off the Florida coast early Wednesday, dropping the occupants into the sea. The Coast Guard rescued 16 and was searching for others but at least nine died, including one infant, said Petty Officer Nick Ameen.
The search was expected to last overnight, and although the Coast Guard hadn't figured out exactly how many people were aboard or how many might still be lost at sea, it appeared certain that it fit the profile of migrant smuggling.
"The boat was obviously overloaded," Coast Guard Capt. James Fitton said. "It's a tragedy that someone would be so callous with human life."
For those familiar with the plight of Haitians, the escape attempt was no surprise.
"The economic conditions in Haiti are deplorable, and I don't see them getting any better any time soon," said Andy Gomez, a University of Miami expert on Caribbean migration. "And the Haitian-American community has developed a pretty good network here in the last five or 10 years, just as the Cuban-Americans have done, so there's more of a reason to come."
Four tropical storms and hurricanes battered the Western Hemisphere's poorest country during last year's harvest season, killing 793 people, crippling agriculture and causing $1 billion in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads.
In January, United Nations-sponsored groups said more aid was urgently needed to stave off famine in several areas of the country.
Fitton said the boat apparently left Bimini in the Bahamas on Tuesday night and was believed to have capsized or collided with something at about 2 a.m. Officials didn't learn about it until another boater called more than 10 hours later.
The boat has not been found, and is thought to have sunk because it hasn't been spotted from the air. Fitton said all those rescued were expected to recover. Besides children, women also were aboard, including a pregnant woman.
Six women, two men and the infant died, Ameen said. He said there was some confusion in the numbers because of the crossover of agencies working on the recovery.
Two Coast Guard cutters, one helicopter and one jet were still searching late Wednesday about 15 miles off the shore of Boynton Beach where water temperatures by the afternoon were in the high 70s.
Since October, the Coast Guard had stopped 1,377 Haitians, up from 972 during the same seven-month period last year. The ship's sinking came as Haitian-American leaders met in Washington on Wednesday to lobby for temporary protective status, or TPS, for those from the country who make it to the U.S.
It would be an emergency measure to keep people from being deported to their homeland so they can help their country recover following a natural disaster or major political upheaval. It has been granted to countries including El Salvador and Nicaragua but never to Haiti.
"If not now, when?" Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, asked of potentially granting Haitians protective status. "The longer it takes the administration to decide whether to grant TPS, the more people may decide to attempt to make it to our shores."
Night fell on Riviera Beach, where numerous bodies were zipped into silver bags and wheeled off on gurneys after being unloaded from a Coast Guard boat.
The Coast Guard said it was not known whether the boat's captain and any crew members were among those found and survivors haven't indicated who may have organized the trip.
"We haven't even asked those questions yet," Fitton said.