BOYNTON BEACH — A boat overloaded with about 30 people, possibly Haitians being smuggled to the United States, sank off the Florida coast early Wednesday. The Coast Guard rescued 17 and was searching for others but said at least 10 died, including a child.
Coast Guard officials said they believe the victims were aboard a vessel that set off from Bimini in the Bahamas. Among the passengers: a pregnant woman and children.
The boat ran into trouble around 2 a.m. Wednesday in the waters east of Boynton Beach, but it wasn't until hours later when a passing boater spotted people in the water and called authorities.
That touched off a massive and dramatic air and boat rescue at sea that was captured live by a local television station in West Palm Beach. Strong currents were complicating search efforts.
"The boat was obviously overloaded," Coast Guard Capt. James Fitton said. "It's a tragedy that someone would be so callous with human life."
Capt. Don DeLucia, a Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spokesman, said his agency knew of at least 11 people who died at sea, but the Coast Guard couldn't confirm that.
Fitton said the boat apparently left Bimini on Tuesday night and was believed to have capsized or collided with something. Of the survivors, eight were wearing life jackets, according to Coast Guard officials, who said the others must have spent hours treading water.
Two helicopters, a jet and three boats were helping in the rescue about 15 miles off Boynton Beach where water temperatures by the afternoon were in the high 70s.
Fitton said all those rescued were expected to recover.
Since October, the Coast Guard had stopped 1,377 Haitians, up from 972 during the same seven-month period last year.
The boat's sinking came as Haitian-American leaders met in Washington on Wednesday to lobby for temporary protective status for those from the country who make it to the United States.
A bill is pending in Congress. If approved, it would allow Haitians here to apply for U.S. work permits during times of civil strife or natural disaster in their homeland. "If not now, when?" Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, asked of potentially granting Haitians protective status.
"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.
In January, United Nations-sponsored groups said more aid was urgently needed to stave off famine in areas of the country.
In Riviera Beach, as night fell, numerous bodies were zipped into silver bags and wheeled off on gurneys after being unloaded from a Coast Guard boat. The search for others continued through the night.
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.
Information from the Associated Press and Miami Herald was used in this report.