U.S. halts boat crowded with 350 Haitians Chase at sea ends six miles from Miami

November 21, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI -- A wooden freighter crammed with more than 350 Haitians was bumped and stopped barely six miles from the Miami shoreline yesterday.

It was the second time in the past four months that the U.S. Coast Guard has had to respond to a grossly overloaded vessel illegally ferrying Haitians in search of a better life.

"Anybody who's gone to Haiti in the past few months could easily understand why people would want to leave: The economy is dead in the water and the government has been paralyzed," said Bishop Thomas Wenski, who heads the Haitian Catholic Center in Miami. "The situation is still very desperate."

On Aug. 26, a Coast Guard cutter intercepted a sailboat carrying 146 Haitians 75 miles west of Great Inagua, Bahamas. That boat, like the one stopped yesterday, was on its way to Miami.

Yesterday's incident began to unfold around dawn, after crew members aboard the 600-foot container ship Seaboard Caribe spotted flares off Elliott Key, just north of Key Largo.

Coast Guard officials received a report that an 80-foot blue and white motor boat loaded with passengers was out of fuel and taking on water.

The Coast Guard ships arrived shortly after 10: 30 a.m.

As soon as the Haitian ship spotted authorities, its engine fired up and the craft headed toward shore. Coast Guard officials ordered it to stop, but the ship kept moving.

After a two-hour pursuit, the 110-foot cutter Maui bumped it on its side, denting part of the rail on deck. The vessel quickly cut its engines and was immediately surrounded by Coast Guard boats.

"The closer the Coast Guard cutter got to the vessel, the harder it tried to come to shore," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Veronica Bandrowsky. "Then our mission was to stop the vessel."

Had the Haitians made landfall, it would have been much harder to round them up and deport them. They would likely have been taken to Krome Detention Center where immigration officials would review their requests to stay on a case-by-case basis.

Instead, because the boat came to rest in choppy seas about six miles southeast of the entrance to the Port of Miami, U.S. authorities boarded the vessel and began transferring passengers to the 210-foot cutter Confidence.

The number of people on board totaled more than 350, including a 3-year-old boy and at least 10 other passengers who were treated for dehydration. One man jumped overboard from the Coast Guard rescue boat in an attempt to escape but was quickly recovered.

The Haitian boat was confiscated and turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol, which will pursue smuggling charges against crew members. No one was charged as of last night. Authorities were trying to sort out who was responsible for operating the boat.

The Haitians are scheduled to be returned to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, by Sunday, Coast Guard officials said.

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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