PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It was only after two weeks at sea, his body dehydrated and near starvation, that Gregorio Maria Marizan finally took out his fisherman's knife.
Twenty-seven migrants on the drifting boat had already died and when another man slumped over and stopped breathing, the 31-year-old knew he had to act.
"We cut from his leg and chest," Maria Marizan told The Associated Press by telephone Monday from a hospital in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos. "We cut little pieces and swallowed them like pills."
Maria Marizan and four others were the only survivors of the 33 Dominican migrants who had set out on the tiny, wooden vessel en route to Puerto Rico. The journey became a nightmare when both the boat's engines died. The captain disappeared in the darkness.
Famished and dehydrated
They tried to sustain themselves on rain and seawater as they bobbed for days on the open waters, far off their original course. Famished and dehydrated, the survivors watched migrant after migrant die, each time dutifully waiting 15 to 20 minutes before throwing the body overboard.
Eating those who perished was not an idea that came easily, the recuperating fisherman said.
"But imagine, 15 days without food, without water. I'm a sailor, a fisherman — they were all yelling at me to do something," he said.
"I always try to be prepared, so I had brought my knife along," he said. "We hadn't brought food because it was supposed to be a quick trip. We had nothing to eat. We had to eat him, to save our own lives."
Maria Marizan and other migrants from the Dominican Republic know just how dangerous it can be to make the 160-mile journey across the Mona Passage to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
The channel is crowded with sharks and patrolling authorities. Its choppy, storm-churned waters present a formidable challenge to the untrained pilots who try to cross them in typically 25-to-30-foot wooden fishing boats known as "yolas."
'Critical condition we live in'
But Maria Marizan said he had to try.
Divorced four years, the fisherman said he was living on an unreliable salary in the central city of San Francisco de Macoris and could not afford to raise his 7-year-old son and his two daughters, ages 6 and 4. He and his two brothers also were struggling to care for their aging, ailing father.
"It's because of the critical condition we live in. My brother has two kids, I have three, our other had two," he said. "I would go out to sea sometimes up to a month, month and a half and catch nothing."
And then one day, Maria Marizan thought he had found his ticket out.
While visiting the town of Nagua, just north of San Francisco de Macoris on the Samana peninsula, he met a boat captain identified by Santo Domingo's Noticias SIN as Francisco Soler, who told him he often made the run to Puerto Rico.
"He said I and one of my brothers could go for free, for nothing, if one of us paid," Maria Marizan said.
Some on the boat would be paying as much as $1,800, more than a year's salary for many Dominicans. Another survivor told a Dominican television station that he had mortgaged his house to make the trip.
But for Maria Marizan, the deal was too good to refuse.
The group set out about 7 a.m. on Oct. 17 from Sanchez, on the Samana peninsula's southern edge.
Aboard the vessel on that calm morning were Maria Marizan's younger brothers, Saulo, 27, and Emmanuel, 30. There were a few women; the youngest passenger was a 19-year-old man.
Decided to press on
After a day and a half, the smaller of the boat's two engines began malfunctioning and an argument broke out among the passengers about whether to give up and go back. The captain, fearful of the police, wanted to press on to the U.S. territory.
On the sixth day, a passenger died. On the seventh night, the captain disappeared — whether he swam off to find help or was thrown off by another passenger, Maria Marizan could not say.
Drinking bits of sea and rainwater, those left behind held on as long as they could, but one after another the passengers began to die — among them, Maria Marizan's brother Emmanuel.
It was just a day before they would finally be rescued that the fisherman and his four fellow survivors turned to their last resort: eating a man who had just died.
"It's like beef, almost the same," Maria Marizan said. "At the skin there is like half an inch of yellow fat, then the fibers."
On Saturday, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescued Maria Marizan, his brother Saulo, a father and son and a woman. The woman died Sunday at the same hospital where Maria Marizan is recovering.
"It was a miracle of God," Maria Marizan said. "I was just praying that one or two of us would survive to tell our story."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.