updated 4/24/2006 12:12:31 PM ET 2006-04-24T16:12:31

Powerful waves capsized a boat carrying about 20 illegal migrants near a popular surfing beach, killing at least five of them as surfers desperately tried to help, witnesses and officials said Monday.

At least 13 people aboard the makeshift 14-foot wooden boat survived the capsizing Sunday afternoon off the shores of Rincon, near the western tip of Puerto Rico. The migrants apparently were all Dominicans.

“My friend paddled out to where these people were drowning and pulled a woman up on his board,” said Alex Irons, a 27-year-old American who lives in Rincon. “There were a lot of people just standing around on the beach wondering what to do about these people drowning out there.”

The seas where the boat capsized, near the Rincon lighthouse that sits atop a rocky promontory with waves crashing below, are particularly rough — attracting experienced surfers from the U.S. mainland.

'Total chaos'
Irons, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, said he was driving with his wife to the lighthouse to go surfing when they saw several helicopters flying close to shore, apparently trying to help with the rescue.

“It was total chaos,” he said. “There were bodies washing up on the beach.”

An unknown number of migrants were traveling aboard the makeshift boat, said Lt. Cmdr. Dave Burns of the U.S. Coast Guard.  At least four helicopters, a dive team and a Coast Guard cutter continued searching the area on Monday.

The survivors—four of whom were treated for dehydration—will likely be repatriated to the Dominican Republic, authorities said.

Small boats frequently attempt to smuggle migrants from the Dominican Republic to this U.S. Caribbean territory, a roughly 70-mile journey across the often-perilous Mona Passage.

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