Dominicans: Deadly Voyage Seemed Doomed From Start

Published February 12, 2012 10:00PM (EST)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Looking back, survivors say, the voyage seemed doomed from the start: The weather was bad and the clearly overloaded boat seemed barely seaworthy as it set out in the inky pre-dawn darkness in what was supposed to be a 36-hour journey to Puerto Rico.

Some passengers noted the fiberglass and wood along the side of the boat was coming apart even before they set off from the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Luis Cortorreal, a 31-year-old house painter making the journey for the first time, said a few people pleaded with the captain to turn back as waves broke over the bow in a wind-driven rain.

They could still see the lights of the beach hotels along the Samana Peninsula. But it was already too late.

The boat broke apart in the waves, scattering more than 70 people into the sea. Men and women flailed in the water and fought to hold on to the boat's aluminum fuel containers. Cortorreal, who was going to meet his brother in Puerto Rico in hopes of starting a new life, recalls panicked shrieks of desperation.

"Everyone was screaming but we were too far away," he said as he recovered back in his hometown of Limon in northeastern Duarte province. "Nobody was going to hear us."

Authorities in the Dominican Republic, working with local fishermen and other volunteers, have recovered the bodies of 52 people from Samana Bay following one of the worst accidents involving a migrant boat in recent years. The search for more victims of the Feb. 4 tragedy ended late Thursday. Thirteen passengers survived, including a man who was one of the journey's organizers and may now face criminal charges.

This latest accident is a window into the perilous traffic of migrants seeking to illegally enter the U.S. territory in open boats known as yolas from the Dominican Republic. They must sail through the Mona Passage, a strait of about 100 miles (160 kilometers) connecting the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea that is considered treacherous even for experienced sailors with advanced equipment.

Those who find their way to the Puerto Rican coast scramble ashore on any number of isolated beaches and blend into the local population. Roughly half use the island to reach the U.S. mainland or Europe by plane, said Jorge Duany, an anthropology professor at the University of Puerto Rico who studies migrants.

Regardless of their eventual destination, they appear undaunted by the danger.

"The Dominicans who launch themselves to sea on yolas are aware of the risk, of the danger of those trips," Duany said. "The dream of being able to reach Puerto Rico or the United States has not disappeared."

The trip is dangerous since the boats are often overloaded, open to the elements, homemade and of uneven construction. Few of the people know how to swim, and life jackets are never available.

Bailing out water from yolas as they cross the Mona Passage is a common task for migrants, said Jeffrey Quinones, a spokesman in Puerto Rico for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"A lot of vessels who venture across are exposed to rough waters," he said. "Around this time of year, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean tend to be very dangerous. The swells are very high."

In 2004, an estimated 80 people drowned when their boat capsized after setting off from the Barracote River, taking the same route as the vessel in the latest catastrophe. Another boat simply vanished that same year in the Mona Passage, and officials estimated at least 50 people died.

In 2008, the engines went out on a boat carrying 33 migrants. They drifted at sea for two weeks, 29 of them dying from starvation and exposure before survivors resorted to cannibalism. They were eventually rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Still, thousands hazard the journey every year, fueled by the same desperation that inspires people to risk their lives trekking through the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cortorreal, who planned to find jobs in Puerto Rico's underground economy painting houses with the brother already there, said he has found no work in his homeland to support his two kids. "I've gone a whole year without work, nothing," he said.

All the dangerous elements seemed to be in place when he and dozens of fellow Dominicans set off from the coast near the town of Sanchez in a vessel that was 38 feet (nearly 12 meters) long, not nearly big enough to safely carry even a fraction of the people on board.

Another survivor interviewed by The Associated Press, Franklin Santos, said he spent much of the trip bailing water with one of the boat's fuel containers.

A 35-year-old who sells used cars at home, Santos recalled how thankful he was at the time to have the aluminum container. "God gave me this container," he said he thought at the time. Moments later, when the boat started to break apart, he used it as a makeshift float.

"There was a lot of fighting for the gas containers and I just stayed back with it," said Santos, who lived without papers in New York for eight years until he was deported in 2011 and was desperate to make it back. "I asked God not to abandon me."

Arismendy Manzueta, a 28-year-old who has been working in the rice fields of the Dominican Republic, said he managed to quickly empty the gasoline from one of the containers and also use it for flotation. He said a cousin traveling with him wasn't able to reach the container in time. Manzueta saw his cousin drown in front of him.

Maria Sobeida Guzman, making her first trip to Puerto Rico in hopes of finding work as a manicurist, was one of the few who could swim — and was the only one of the 10 women on board who apparently survived.

"I swam as much as I could, and when the sun came out I thought they would rescue us, and that's all I remember," Guzman recalled at the hospital in Sabana de la Mar, where 10 of the 13 survivors were treated.

After spending more than eight hours in the water, Guzman had severe burns from the sun on her legs and chest and was exhausted from exposure, said Frank Tavarez, director of the hospital.

Cortorreal also spent about eight hours in the sea before he was rescued in a state of delirium by fishermen. "My legs were cramped and I just lay there floating until I passed out," he said.

The number of migrants who make the journey, typically paying about $1,000 to $1,200, fluctuates with the economic conditions in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

In 2004, amid an economic crisis in the country of nearly 10 million people, an estimated 12,000 Dominicans made the crossing and at least 123 died. The number has dropped significantly in recent years. In 2011, the Dominican navy detained 1,200 people before they made the trip and destroyed 199 of the yolas. But no one expects that to deter people.

"People don't think of the danger," said Yolanda Reyes, who was at a church service to mark the death of two of her cousins in the voyage and whose bodies were not recovered. "Here the situation is so tough they just want a better life."


Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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