The vessel headed for Florida capsized after its engines failed and it began taking on water off the northern Bahamian island of Abaco late Sunday, authorities and survivors said. Among those missing are several children. Eleven bodies have been recovered.
Authorities were trying to determine if one of five men who swam to safety was the organizer of the ill-fated smuggling venture, said Assistant Superintendent Loretta Mackey of the Royal Bahamas Police Force.
Medius Previlon, an unemployed 46-year-old man of Haitian descent who has lived in the Bahamas for the last 22 years, told The Associated Press that he lost his 10-year-old son, Caleb. Previlon said that he'd saved money for his young son to board the doomed voyage that left Abaco. He'd hoped that Caleb would've been able to join his mother and three siblings in Miami.
"I did everything I could for him to leave the Bahamas," Previlon told The Associated Press by phone from Abaco, speaking in Haitian Creole.
One survivor, a man of Bahamian-Haitian descent, told authorities that the boat's engines kept cutting off, according to National Security Minister Bernard Nottage.
"He reported that the seas were very rough, and the vessel began to take on water," Nottage said. "The vessel eventually capsized, and everyone began to scramble to save their lives. He reported that he did his best to save other persons, but the sea was too rough, so he had to save his own life."
Nottage said the man told police he believed that nine children, five young women and 14 men were on board. He also said that he remembers seeing six survivors who vanished once they reached land.
Bahamian police have arrested eight people in Cooper's Town for questioning because they believe they were somehow involved, Nottage said.
Police had initially reported that seven people made it back to shore but Mackey later said they were able to confirm only five. The Coast Guard reported that four had survived.
Such confusion is typical following accidents involving migrant boats because the passengers rarely know each other and often try to avoid being caught so they can make another attempt to reach their destination. The exact death toll may never be known and the boat captain will often try to blend in with survivors to avoid arrest, said Chris Lloyd, operations manager for the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association, which assisted the search.
Also typical, Lloyd said, is a lack of life jackets or other safety equipment and a poorly maintained and overloaded vessel. "I don't know that it is a search any more rather than a recovery," he said. "Those who were going to survive, survived I'm afraid."
Abaco has a population of about 13,000 people, including several hundred Haitians and people of Haitian descent in a couple of shantytowns known as "Pigeon Pea" and "The Mud." The Haitian ambassador to the Bahamas, Antonio Rodrigue, said the passengers on the capsized vessel were likely from outside the island and paid around $5,000 each to be smuggled to the U.S.
Despite his young son's death at sea, Previlon said he planned to attempt the same perilous voyage eventually.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to leave this island," Previlon said from Abaco.