PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – An exhausted Justin Desamour stepped off a plane Tuesday with cuts up and down his slender arm, relieved to be back in his homeland but haunted by his fresh memories of a disastrous journey.
The 17-year-old from northern Haiti was among 111 migrants who survived when their overloaded sailboat capsized in the southern Bahamas last week. Survivors clung to the hull and the mast for hours, fighting to stay alive. Authorities say about 30 people died, and Desamour says a brother and cousin were among those killed.
“God is the only one who saved me,” Desamour said as he returned from his ill-fated voyage along with most of the survivors. They were among 228 migrants the Bahamian government sent home Tuesday after detaining them recently for illegally entering the Bahamas.
Desamour and others who were on the boat that capsized Nov. 25 described a scene of horror, as the hungry and dehydrated migrants, most of whom couldn’t swim, clambered for space on the overturned boat.
“People lost their minds and started jumping into the sea,” said Marcel Dorostant, a 29-year-old motorcycle taxi driver who said he borrowed a $115 from a friend to pay the $227 smugglers fee to reach the Bahamas.
The migrants had been at sea for eight to nine days with limited food and water and no lifejackets when the sailboat ran aground in an area of reefs and flipped, authorities said.
Many, like Desamour, were severely dehydrated when the first rescue crews arrived.
Although authorities have estimated about 30 people died in the accident, not all of their bodies have been recovered, and the death toll could be much higher. The recovered bodies are expected to be buried in the Bahamas.
Survivors have said about 250 people were aboard the boat that sailed from La Tortue, a mountainous island north of Haiti known as a smugglers’ hideaway. Some people reported paying $150-$450 for the voyage.
Just before the trip, a man from La Tortue visited the coastal town of Port-de-Paix and announced a boat was leaving soon.
“I was determined to make it to the Bahamas,” Dorostant said at a government center where the returned migrants received rice, water and a little bit of money to return home. “In the countryside we sold animals so that we could leave.”
Desamour said he and his brother decided to take the trip on a whim one day last month after school, packing only bread and a bottle of water. They each paid $147 for the chance to leave the misery of Port-de-Paix, Desamour said.
Survivors said passengers grew uneasy after the first week at sea.
Desamour said fights became increasingly common as passengers realized the boat was overcrowded and might sink. Some people were pushed overboard, he said.
Dorostant disagreed that any passengers were pushed into the ocean, but he said some desperate people threw themselves overboard to escape the 40-foot sloop crammed with people on the deck and in the hull.
“Under the deck wasn’t good for me,” Dorostant said. “Where I sat, there were people vomiting. Where I sat, there were people using it as a toilet. This can leave people in agony.”
Such maritime disasters occur frequently in the area, most recently in October when four Haitian women died off Miami. There have also been fatal accidents near the Turks and Caicos Islands, between Haiti and the Bahamas, and in the rough Mona Passage dividing the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Migrants have long used the Bahamian archipelago to reach the United States, with thousands also settling in the Bahamas in recent years.
This was evident Tuesday when Bahamian police reported that a sloop carrying Haitian migrants landed on Long Island. Police captured 28 men and three women and were looking for more.
Associated Press writer Alison Lowe in Nassau, Bahamas, contributed to this report.
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