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Haitian recounts horrors of wreck

Shipwreck survivor Joanel Pierre, 18, says he still desperately wants to get out of Haiti, but “I’m not going out on the water again.”

Associated Press

Shipwreck survivor Joanel Pierre, 18, says he still desperately wants to get out of Haiti, but “I’m not going out on the water again.”

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti — There was no warning when the overloaded sailboat plowed into a coral reef and began to break apart. In the darkness, some 200 migrants were plunged into the water, grabbing desperately at anything that might help keep them afloat.

Joanel Pierre, a skinny 18-year-old, lifted his gray T-shirt on Wednesday to display the scratches clawed into his body by drowning shipmates.

"The ones who knew how to swim, swam," he said quietly, averting his eyes. "The ones who didn't, died."

Fifteen bodies had been recovered Wednesday, and about 70 people remained missing as the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search after a 52-hour operation that covered more than 1,500 square miles. Local authorities also called off their search.

And the 118 who had already been rescued began to tell the story of their doomed voyage.

The blue-and-white sailboat set out before dawn Saturday filled with people from miserably poor northern Haiti. Their families had saved up $500 apiece to send them to what Haitians call "the other side of the water."

In this case the destination was the Turks and Caicos Islands, where Pierre hoped to work as a mechanic.

The boat was jam-packed with people. Pierre said the hold was packed so tight that nobody could lie down. About 10 p.m. Sunday, Pierre clambered onto deck for some fresh air, and was rewarded with a welcome sight: the lights of Providenciales gleaming on the horizon.

But before he could savor the moment there was a powerful jolt and a skidding sensation, Pierre said. The hold began to splinter as the waves smashed the vessel against a reef, survivors said.

"People started yelling, 'God help me!' " Pierre said.

Pierre spoke Wednesday in Cap-Haitien, the northern Haitian city where he and dozens of other survivors were flown back from the Turks and Caicos. Others were still being held in a gym in Providenciales.

Like most of those who made it, Pierre managed to swim through 6-foot swells to the jagged reef that sank the boat and clung to it for his life. The sun was scorching, and there was no food or water.

"We were hungry, thirsty, uncomfortable," he said. "We went through every misery at once."

Others clung to pieces of the boat — all that remained of it — terrified as they drifted that their bleeding wounds would attract sharks.

Early Monday, a boat passed nearby. Survivors waved and screamed, but it didn't veer from its course, said rescuer Dja Castel, recounting what survivors told him. Many gave themselves up for dead.

By the time the first rescuers arrived, the survivors had been in the 15-foot-deep water for 17 hours, and nobody was strong enough to scream.

Castel, who was on a boat in the area, spotted a red piece of clothing waving in the wind — someone's shirt. As they approached, rescuers saw two men trying to swim toward a reef where about 20 people clung to the coral.

Some on the reef were wearing only their underwear.

"They looked like someone who had lost hope," Castel said.

At a government clinic in Providenciales, doctors hooked IV drips to survivors' arms. The patients, many bleeding, cried out in weak voices in pain and for the people they had lost.

Pierre, said for all the horrors of the voyage he was still desperate to get out of Haiti.

"I'm not going on the water again," he said. "But if God made it possible for me to get a plane ticket, I would go."

Haitian recounts horrors of wreck 07/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 10:37pm]
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