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Nearly 2,000 Die as Ferry Sinks off Coast of Haiti

By Kenneth Freed
Los Angeles Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti

A heavily overloaded ferry sank in a storm off the coast of Haiti, drowning most of the 2,000 passengers believed aboard, Haitian rescue workers and U.S. Coast Guard officials said Thursday.

Jonel Charles, head of the Haitian Red Cross, said in a telephone interview that only 285 survivors had been found by late Thursday afternoon, almost two days after the 150-foot boat Neptune went down.

The accident occurred late Tuesday night as the Neptune made its regular 12-hour, 150-mile run from the western port of Jeremie to Port-au-Prince. In addition to passengers, the ferry ordinarily carries cargo, particularly tons of charcoal, and large numbers of animals for sale in the area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's largest city.

When seen earlier this week, tied up at the docks of the Haitian capital, the vessel carried no visible lifeboats. Survivors told local reporters Thursday that there were no life jackets or other emergency gear, including radios, on board.

They added that the crew gave no help after the craft sank.

The captain, identified by radio reports as Benjamin St. Clair, survived and swam to shore. He was quoted as saying the passengers' panic contributed to the disaster.

Survivors told local radio stations that the passengers panicked when the Neptune began to pitch and roll in the wind and rain.

"Many of the people rushed to one side," a woman survivor told Radio Metropole, "and others rushed to the top" deck.

Radio Metropole also reported that the crush of people caused that deck to collapse onto hundreds of people below. Officials speculated that the crash and the rush to one side caused the vessel to capsize, spilling people, cattle and cargo into the ocean.

Reporters on the scene said some of those on the ship had survived by holding on to the carcasses of dead cattle. Others spoke of holding on to crates of soda water.

A 33-year-old survivor said he frantically grabbed a bag of charcoal after being swept into the ocean and hugged it to his chest until a small fishing boat rescued him Wednesday afternoon.

"I was saved by this bucket," said one exhausted woman, pointing to a small white plastic bucket at her feet. "I swam for my life."

The sea around the vessel, officials and survivors said, was filled with people and debris.

Lt. Cmdr. Larry Mizell, the U.S. Coast Guard representative here, said that the triple-deck ship ran into a heavy rainstorm about halfway through the voyage and went down near the coastal town of Miragoane.

"This is one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history," Mizell said.

Reports of the disaster were delayed until Thursday morning because of the almost total lack of communications between the capital and the area where survivors managed to reach shore.

According to Mizell and local rescue workers, more than 200 bodies had been recovered. One Haitian Red Cross official said that, while some more survivors might turn up, he thought the death toll would reach 1,500 or even more.

Petty Officer Steve Sapp, another Coast Guard spokesman, said in a telephone interview from his Miami office, "One of our cutters picked up so many bodies they stopped counting because there were just too many to keep track of."

Mizell said two Coast Guard cutters and U.S. planes were searching the waters for bodies and survivors.

The Haitian navy is nearly inoperative and was able to put only two small motor boats into the search-and-rescue effort.

Because their impoverished country lacks usable roads and transport vehicles, thousands of Haitians use ferries to move about the island nation. Most of the vessels are small, aging and in bad condition. Passengers report constant engine failures; accidents and even deaths are frequent.

Officials said the Neptune should not have carried more than 650 or so passengers but almost always had more people aboard. The most conservative estimate of Tuesday night's passenger load was 850. But survivors and people familiar with the loading patterns of the ferries said that was undoubtedly low.

"We probably will never know exactly how many were on the vessel," said Petty Officer Joe Dye, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. "There are no passenger lists."