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Haitians Place Blame for Ferry Tragedy on Preval Government

By Serge F. Kovaleski
The Washington Post
MONTROUIS, Haiti

Moments before the sea swallowed the Pride of La Gonave, Dadson Fontlis recalls, banter among friends and the sight of romping children were transformed into a cacophony of shrieks, pleas for divine intervention and frenzy as the ferry capsized.

"What I sadly remember is all these people being thrown on top of each other and begging God to save them, to give them some kind of miracle," Fontlis said today. "There were children near me who eventually drowned and were yelling, "I don't want to die, I don't want to die.' "

The sinking of the ferry at dawn Monday - the sixth such disaster in five years in Haiti - claimed an estimated 245 lives. It is believed to have been caused by the passengers, who kept shuffling from one side of the boat to the other in an effort to stop it from listing as it approached the beach here on its regular commuter journey from the nearby island of Gonave. Finally, the human weight caused the 61-foot ferry - which survivors say carried no life jackets - to topple to the left and capsize.

Grieving families contended that if the government of President Rene Preval had moved sooner on plans to construct a dock at the beach, where several commuter ferries operate from each day, perhaps the catastrophe could have been avoided. According to survivors, the boat keeled over while turning around in rough waters about 100 yards from shore so passengers could disembark from the rear and be carried to land on the shoulders of workers who charge the equivalent of about 50 cents per person.

Tens of millions of dollars in vital international assistance to Haiti continues to be held up because of delays by the government in implementing key reforms, including privatization and modernization of such inefficient state-run enterprises as the phone company.

As for effectively regulating transportation - including the private ferry services, which for many Haitians are the only means of traveling to certain parts of this island nation because of inadequate or nonexistent roads - one Presidential Palace official said, "Yes, there are rules and regulations, but there is no money to enforce them."

During a visit here this week, Preval issued a statement saying the ferry sinking again shows the weaknesses of the country's infrastructure and his administration will continue efforts to provide Haitians with "reliable and sure" maritime transportation.

Although a number of survivors have said that about 700 people were on the ferry - including many children, who routinely are not required to pay - the vessel's operator has insisted that no more than the legal limit of 265 tickets were sold for the trip. In February 1993, a ferry sank with about 1,000 people aboard, and as many as 700 are thought to have perished.

Over the past two days, Haitians have held demonstrations and accused the government and U.N. personnel assisting in the recovery operation of taking too long to retrieve the dead. A total of 58 corpses have been recovered by divers, according to U.N. officials.

"What we have of a government has no respect for the dead or those in mourning," said Jacques Senat, who lost eight relatives in the capsizing, including his sister, brother and uncle. "Let's go. Bring up our relatives so we can see them for the last time and bury them with dignity."