At least 17 migrants from Haiti died Wednesday when their overloaded sailboat capsized as it was being towed to shore in the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials in the British territory said.
A marine unit of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force had intercepted the packed sloop about two hours earlier and was escorting it to shore when it abruptly overturned, sparking a frantic search and rescue operation in the pre-dawn darkness.
Karlo Pelissier, the Haitian consul to the Turks and Caicos, said he was told by survivors that several migrants attempted to jump off the 28-foot boat and flee to land as they neared the island of Providenciales and that the surge caused the overloaded sloop to overturn. Officials had not confirmed that as the cause of the capsizing.
Authorities rescued 33 migrants, including one 12-year-old boy, and recovered the bodies of 17 people. Divers and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters assisted in a search for additional survivors or victims in the area where the incident occurred, about 150 yards (meters) from shore. Earlier, officials had said there were 18 confirmed deaths but the toll was revised downward.
A scaled-down search was planned for Thursday but further casualties were not expected, said Neil Smith, a government spokesman. The remains of the 12 men and five women killed would be repatriated after autopsies to establish the cause of death.
Survivors were being detained at a migrant detention center in Providenciales, the most populated island in the chain southeast of the Bahamas, and there were no major injuries. "They are tired, but they are OK," Pelissier said in a phone interview as he met with them.
The migrants, mostly from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap-Haitien, had set off on their voyage Sunday night, Pelissier said. They paid $500-$1,000 each and were trying to reach Miami or the Bahamas as well as Turks and Caicos, which has an established community of migrants from Haiti working in construction, tourism and service jobs.
Haitian officials say they try to discourage migrants from risking these journeys.
"We are saddened by such tragedy and present our condolences and prayers to the families and friends of those affected by this accident," said Salim Succar, an adviser to Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.
The rescued migrants are expected to be repatriated to Haiti in the coming days.
Authorities had not yet identified the captain of the vessel or any of the human smugglers from among the survivors, police spokesman Audley Astwood said. "Right now, the focus of our operation is search and rescue, trying to save as many lives as possible," he added.
The Turks and Caicos, in addition to being a destination for Haitian migrants seeking to escape their impoverished country, is also a favored route of smugglers. The waters surrounding the islands are dotted with many tiny cays, reefs and patches of shallow water, making it treacherous for sailors, especially when boats are overloaded.
The capsizing of migrant vessels has become common throughout the region. In November, an overloaded migrant sloop overturned in the southern Bahamas and an estimated 30 people drowned.
In July 2009, a sailboat with estimated 200 Haitians aboard ran aground on a reef off Turks and Caicos, killing at least 15 people. In May 2007, at least 61 migrants died when their boat capsized, also just off shore from Providenciales.
Associated Press writers Vivian Tyson in the Turks and Caicos Islands and Trenton Daniel in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.