Image: Rescue personnel unload a body
Wilfredo Lee  /  AP
Rescue personnel unload a body from a Coast Guard vessel Wednesday at a dock in Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach, Fla.
NBC News and news services
updated 5/14/2009 2:50:20 PM ET 2009-05-14T18:50:20

Rescuers searched the open Atlantic off Florida on Thursday for more possible victims a day after a boat overloaded with Haitian migrants capsized and sank, killing at least nine people.

Sixteen people survived and it was unclear how many more might be missing, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. James Fitton said. He said authorities believe about 28 to 35 people were aboard the boat.

The dead included an infant girl. Fitton said eight of the survivors were wearing life jackets and the others had to tread water for more than 10 hours before they were discovered by chance Wednesday by another boat about 15 miles off the coast.

"A lot of those people were out there treading water for a long time," Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen said.

The survivors face almost certain deportation. Officials were already processing five of those rescued to be returned to Haiti, said George Roig, the Port Everglades Port Director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Three of the survivors were taken to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, including a woman who is believed to be pregnant. Two more survivors were taken to two other hospitals. Eleven other survivors were on board a Coast Guard cutter.

The rescue operation expanded Thursday morning to follow currents farther north, Coast Guard officials said. The search using helicopters, cutters, a jet and a handful of small boats covered more than 2,700 square miles. No new victims were found overnight.

The search started around midday Wednesday when a boater first discovered survivors in the ocean and continued through the night, using helicopters, cutters, a jet and a handful of small boats. No new victims were found in the pre-dawn hours, Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen said.

'Obviously overloaded'
It appeared most of the passengers were from Haiti and the trip fit the profile of migrant smuggling, Fitton said.

"The boat was obviously overloaded," Fitton said Wednesday. "It's a tragedy that someone would be so callous with human life."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it was investigating whether this was a criminal case of immigrant smuggling or if any other criminal activity was involved. The agency urged anyone with information to call a tip line.

Illegal migrants from Haiti are almost always deported, a sore point for Miami's Haitian-American community because Cuban migrants who reach U.S. shores are allowed to stay under U.S. government policy. Cubans interdicted at sea are usually returned to the communist island.

The ship's sinking came as Haitian-American leaders met in Washington on Wednesday to lobby for temporary protective status, or TPS, for those from the desperately poor country who make it to the U.S.

Battered country
It would be an emergency measure to keep people from being deported while Haiti recovers from a natural disaster or major political upheaval. It has been granted to countries including El Salvador and Nicaragua but never to Haiti.

Since October, the Coast Guard has stopped 1,377 Haitians from trying to get to the U.S., an increase from 972 during the same seven-month period last year. Four tropical storms and hurricanes battered the Western Hemisphere's poorest country during last year's harvest season, killing 793 people, crippling agriculture and causing $1 billion in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads.

The boat apparently left Bimini in the Bahamas on Tuesday night and was believed to have capsized or collided with something at about 2 a.m. Wednesday, the Coast Guard said. Many Caribbean migrants who try to reach the U.S. arrange trips leaving from the Bahamas.

Officials didn't learn about the accident until another boater spotted swimmers more than 10 hours later about 15 miles off the shore of Boynton Beach, around 60 miles north of Miami.

The boat has not been found, and rescuers believed it sank because it hasn't been spotted from the air.

Tony Mead, operations manager at the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's office, said autopsies were under way Thursday and would likely be completed by the end of the day.

More on Haiti

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Migrant boat capsizes

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