IMAGE: Haitians rest on deck
Bruce Smith  /  AP
Two Haitian migrants rest on the deck of a private boat after being rescued from the waters off the northern coastline of the Dominican Republic on Tuesday.
updated 3/2/2007 10:05:56 PM ET 2007-03-03T03:05:56

U.S. Coast Guard crews searched waters off the north coast of the Dominican Republic Friday for nearly 50 Haitian migrants missing since their homemade boat caught fire, an agency spokesman said.

At least five people died when the fiberglass vessel the migrants were apparently taking from the northern Haitian town of Cap-Haitien to the Turks and Caicos Islands caught fire about 23 miles north of the Dominican Republic. Authorities did not know when the blaze occurred, when the migrants set sail or what caused the fire.

The Coast Guard mistakenly reported seeing eight passengers dead on Thursday because a pilot counted some bodies twice, according to U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Barry Bena. Five bodies were found by a Liberian-flagged merchant marine ship on Thursday, Bena said.

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter, airplane and helicopter have not located any other bodies or survivors.

‘I thought it was a buoy’
Two survivors were plucked from the Atlantic Tuesday by an American couple sailing from Panama to Antigua. Authorities believe there were originally more than 50 people on board the migrants' boat.

"I spotted an odd shape in the water. I thought it was a buoy," Jan Hein, a 53-year-old elementary school teacher from Gig Harbor, Wash., told The Associated Press.

But as she and husband Bruce Smith piloted their 34-foot wooden sailboat closer, they realized the shape was a man and a woman clinging to a charred piece of fiberglass.

"They were suffering," Hein said by phone from aboard their boat, the Woodwind, which was ported Friday in the Dominican town of Montecristi.

Hein and Smith lifted 27-year-old Djenson Loucien and a 23-year-old woman named Julie into their boat, washed the salt out of their burn wounds and tried to keep them warm after issuing a distress call.

IMAGE: Coast Guard search
U.S. Coast Guard officers search waters off the northern coastline of the Dominican Republic on Friday for Haitian migrants who went missing when their homemade boat caught fire.
The migrants told the couple they had possibly spent days clinging to the wreckage after a gas tank exploded during refueling.

The American couple sailed five hours south to the Dominican coast when no help came to meet them. Another sailboat owner answered their call upon arriving in Montecristi and helped rush the two Haitians to a hospital.

The pair were in stable condition Friday, and could spend at least two more weeks in the hospital, said Dr. Braulio Manuel Reynoso. Hein said their care was being paid for by the other sailboat owner, a developer with projects in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Thousands of Haitians take to the sea on flimsy boats each year, heading north toward Florida to escape grinding poverty and frequent political turmoil in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Nearly all are intercepted and repatriated to their homeland, where the vast majority of the nation's 8 million people lives on less than $1 a day.

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