A stop has been called on rescue efforts in the aftermath of the Christmas Day capsize of an overloaded sailboat as it was being towed to shore in the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials in the British territory said yesterday.
"After a thorough search of the site yesterday, we are confident that there are no more bodies to be found, following the recovery of 17 adult corpses yesterday -12 males and five females," declared the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) Police Force and the TCI Ministry of Border Control and Labour in a joint statement.
"The site was monitored throughout today (yesterday), and given the shallow clear waters in the area, we are confident that there are no more remains to be found.
"The focus of the police is now on a two-pronged investigation. We will investigate the cause of the accident, although initial eyewitness accounts indicated that this was apparently caused by the movement of those on board to one side of what was described as a badly overloaded vessel. Clearly, the necessary autopsy on the deceased will assist in this.
The authorities said they would continue to question the 33 survivors, 21 males and 12 females, who have been detained both in relation to the accident and how they came to be on the vessel in TCI waters.
"Any intelligence gained will be used in our ongoing fight against illegal immigration."
A marine unit of the Royal TCI Police Force had intercepted the packed sloop about two hours before the incident and was escorting it to shore when it abruptly overturned, sparking a frantic search and rescue operation in the pre-dawn darkness.
Tried to flee to land
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.
Divers and US Coast Guard helicopters assisted in a search for additional survivors or victims in the area where the incident occurred, about 150 yards (metres) from shore. Earlier, officials had said there were 18 confirmed deaths but the toll was revised downward.
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. They reportedly paid US$500-US$1,000 each, and were trying to reach Miami, The Bahamas as well as Turks and Caicos, which has an established community of migrants from Haiti working in construction, tourism and service jobs.
- The Associated Press contributed to this story.