PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti -- Hundreds of Haitians drowned early Wednesday morning when a dilapidated and overcrowded ferry carrying people and animals sank in a rainstorm near here.
No one learned of the tragedy until survivors began washing up on shore late Wednesday, and news did not reach Port-au-Prince until yesterday morning. The ferry, the Neptune, was carrying about 100 children who were believed to have died. Authorities said the sinking was unconnected with the recent exodus of boat people.
Many of the survivors hung onto wood, life vests and even livestock as they waited to be rescued. Some said that local fishermen were more eager to pull in cargo than people.
The exact number of passengers aboard the vessel was unclear, but U.S. Coast Guard officials said 800 ticketed passengers boarded the 150-foot long boat in the western city of Jeremie on Tuesday.
Benjamin St. Clair, the ferry's captain, told independent Radio Metropole that 2,000 passengers were on board the Neptune about 1 a.m. Wednesday when it rolled over during heavy rains and sank.
Captain St. Clair, who swam to safety, was later brought by police to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, for questioning and could not be reached for comment.
By last night, 285 people had either floated to shore alive or had been rescued at sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which has a 17-ship flotilla off Haiti to intercept refugees, dispatched a surveillance plane and three ships to southern Haiti yesterday to look for survivors.
"If there's anyone out there, I'm pretty sure we would have found them by now," said Cmdr. Larry Mizell, the Coast Guard liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. "We don't expect to continue the search mission tomorrow."
"It's a tragic situation," he said.
Late yesterday, two U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats docked in Port-au-Prince and unloaded the blanket-cloaked bodies of more than 59 victims. They had been picked up by the patrol boats as they searched for survivors in the area where the Neptune went down.
The Neptune, which motors the 150-mile journey between Jeremie and the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince twice a week, was jam-packed with passengers. Five survivors said the ship was standing room only and that the vessel also carried farm animals and crates of cargo.
The Neptune is one of two ferries serving the route that links Port-au-Prince and Jeremie, a major agricultural production center in southwestern Haiti.
The ferryboats are routinely packed to capacity, with passengers clinging to the upper decks.
Poor Haitians use the ships to carry baskets of fruit, farm animals and other cargo to the capital from Jeremie.
"It was fuller than usual," said survivor Moise Edouard, 33, who makes the 12-hour boat trip about once a month. Mr. Edouard, a farmer, said he grabbed onto a sack filled with charcoal after jumping into the Gulf of Gonave.
He said he hung onto the bag for more than 24 hours before being rescued by local fishermen. After being treated for exhaustion at the Notre-Dame Hospital in Petit-Goave, about 40 miles south of Port-au-Prince, he was driven to the capital by Red Cross officials.
L He and other survivors related gripping stories of survival.
"There were lots of children on the boat. More than 100. They all died," said Mr. Edouard quietly explaining that his cousin Franceau Couba, 21, was on the Neptune with him and is presumed dead.
"I came with my cousin. I don't know where she is," said Marie Ange-Louis, 24 at the Notre Dame Hospital here. She later found her 25-year-old cousin at Hospital St. Croix in Leogane, 15 miles north of Petit-Goave.
"When the rains came, the boat was swaying from side to side. The captain was trying to get the passengers to move to the other side of the boat to keep it balanced. People panicked and began screaming. But the swaying got worse," said Ms. Ange-Louis, who was standing near the bridge when the Neptune rolled on its side and sank.
"The captain lost radio contact with Port-au-Prince. Then the generator went and there was a blackout. The captain said he couldn't do anything.
"We sank in about a minute," she said. While she was in the sea, Ms. Ange-Louis, said Captain St.-Clair was able to pass her a life vest. She floated in the water until late Wednesday evening when she was rescued by local fishermen.
"But the fishermen couldn't pick everyone up. Some were left there," said Ange-Louis, who sells merchandise in Port-au-Prince. The water was cold but calm. My entire body hurt."
Joseline Pierre-Louis, 37, said she survived her first hour at sea by clinging to a cow which had been stored on the Neptune. Thirteen other Haitians clung to the cow with her.
"Later I got to a box filled soda bottles. Three other women were with me. Two of them gave up and drowned," said Ms. Pierre-Louis whose chin was badly bruised, hurt by rubbing her chin against the wood.
Ms. Pierre-Louis washed up on a Leogane beach yesterday morning.
"I saw fishing boats. But they were pulling out the cargo, like cows and bananas. They were not taking people to shore," said Ms. Pierre-Louis, who sells Jeremie produce in Port-au-Prince.
At Hospital St. Croix, Dr. Herald Leconte, said many of the survivors were in serious condition. "They need intensive care. They're suffering from trauma, salt water consumption and hypoglycemia."
Hospital St. Croix set up an emergency treatment area with 15 beds. All of the patients had badly bruised chins and were extremely exhausted.