By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
In the worst migrant boating tragedy in Bahamian waters since 2013, officials said 27 Haitians are dead and 18 survived after their boat hit a reef on Friday night and sunk.
Haitian survivors of the shipwreck told rescuers they were at sea for seven days when all hell broke loose near the Abaco cays.
The vessel struck a reef well-known to be dangerous and the boat disintegrated into two halves, volunteer rescuers told this newspaper.
The dead were first spotted by tourists in a 55ft chartered catamaran early on Saturday morning. The tourists saw two floating bodies and sent a mayday signal, according to Troy Albury, 48, head of Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association on Guana Cay and the first rescuer on the scene.
Mr Albury said more than four hours likely passed before anyone knew what had happened. Rigor mortis had set in by the time he neared Scotland Cay shortly after 9 o’clock that morning, he said.
The Royal Bahamas Defence Force said 27 bodies have been recovered over the past two days, 13 on Saturday and 14 yesterday.
Eighteen survivors were rescued, including two yesterday. The Tribune was told the two latest survivors waved down officers from an abandoned cay on which they likely hid when officers patrolled the area the previous day.
Of the dead, 23 were recovered near Fowl Cay where their vessel was shipwrecked six miles off the coast of Marsh Harbour.
The Department of Immigration said 87 people were allegedly on the vessel. However, volunteers said multiple survivors told them 45 people were on board.
Rescue operations yesterday were hindered by tiger sharks that circled the wreckage and ate human remains.
One volunteer said two bodies remained trapped under the wreckage because it was too difficult to get them out.
Mr Albury, the owner of Dive Guana, was about to take guests on an excursion when the mayday call came in.
The tourists who found the bodies stayed behind until his team arrived but they soon left to catch a flight out of the country.
Mr Albury said: “I was in the boat getting ready to go on a trip when the call came in and I told the people get off the boat and just me and the crew went out. Five of my vessels were out searching for people. It took us seven minutes to get to the site.
“We recovered four bodies floating in the waters at Scotland Cay. When we tried to determine the source of where the boat went down, we discovered survivors on a small cay. We saw four bodies but nine backpacks so we knew there was a lot more people in the water.”
It was likely dark when the vessel shipwrecked, Mr Albury said. He added that the reef the vessel struck is particularly treacherous and boats often run aground there.
“What’s so heartbreaking is they were so close,” he said. “They were less than 300 yards away from getting into North Man-O-War Channel. You have to know how to navigate that reef. The reef is on either side of the channel that comes in and the channel is almost about three and a quarter miles wide and it takes you into what’s called the sea of Abaco. They were on the outer boundary of the channel coming in and if they got passed that reef they would’ve been inside the sea of Abaco. There are only certain places you could come through and if you trying to come in at night and don’t know the direction to come in from, it’s problematic. It’s like 40 feet reef that comes straight to the surface.”
Mr Albury believes that while the survivors successfully swam to a cay, those who drowned away from the wreckage were likely swimmers who didn’t get to land in time.
“They probably went in the wrong direction,” he said. “They probably made it halfway because they were in the sea of Abaco but they drowned. All of the other people found between late Saturday night and this morning were right next to the boat so they drowned immediately.”
The experience has been traumatising for Mr Albury.
“I had a young boy with me, one of my employees and I don’t think he slept last night, just traumatised,” he said. “We have to somehow get the message out. I wanted to say, ‘let’s send a picture of the six dead bodies on the back of my boat, thrown in atop each other to Haiti so people could see what happens when you make this journey.’ I want to say ‘listen, if you decide to get in a boat and come to the Bahamas, this is what might end up happening to you.’”
Rescuers on Saturday included officials from the United States Coast Guard, volunteers from Hope Town Fire and Rescue and officers from the RBDF.
“Luckily there was a defence force vessel already here because we didn’t have anywhere to put the survivors,” Mr Albury said.
Yesterday, officials were challenged with determining where to put the dead bodies because the morgue on the island was full.
It took hours before the bodies that were brought ashore were removed and taken elsewhere.
The incident was the deadliest migrant shipwreck in Bahamian waters since 2013 when at least 30 Haitians perished on an overloaded boat headed for the United States. At the time, 110 people were rescued, including 19 women.
The Department of Immigration declined to let The Tribune interview survivors yesterday.
Immigration Director Clarence Russell said: “All retrieved persons from the incident on Abaco are suspects in what might eventually be charges of homicide once a captain and/or mate is identified. Until the police have concluded their investigations into this most tragic event, no suspect from said incident will be interviewed by any non-governmental official.”
• This story originally stated that 28 people had died and 17 had survived the tragedy. That has now been updated.