updated 7/28/2009 5:58:32 PM ET 2009-07-28T21:58:32

The handmade wooden sailboat, weighed down with about 200 Haitians fleeing poverty, tried to maneuver through the treacherous coral reefs when it was struck by heavy swells. It had no chance.

"The waves broke the boat apart," said Samuel Been, minister of public safety for the Turks and Caicos Islands. "It was frightening."

Tossed into the water, some managed to swim two miles to shore, while others clung to wreckage or the razor-sharp reef. At least 15 drowned.

Rescuers searched by sea and air Tuesday for nearly 70 more believed missing after the overloaded sailboat ran aground and splintered near the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The boat was carrying an estimated 200 men, women and teenagers when it struck the reef near West Caicos, part of an archipelago that has proven to be deadly for Haitians trying to escape their homeland in rickety vessels.

Such perilous journeys have long been common throughout the world, but the number of migrants risking their lives to cross borders has declined amid increased enforcement in the United States and Europe and due to a global recession that has eliminated many unskilled jobs. Still, people continue to take the chance, including the Haitians who crowded into a sailboat last week in northern Haiti.

15 die, more than 100 rescued

Fifteen people died and more than 100 were rescued after the boat failed to navigate a narrow pass between two reefs, according to the Coast Guard and Been, who spoke with 10 of the survivors.

Coast Guard boats, airplanes and a helicopter joined local authorities and volunteers in searching a 1,600-square-mile area, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Johnson. Any survivors in the water would be struggling with 23 mph winds and 6-foot seas.

"We hope that there are survivors and we can get them medical attention," she said. "However, as time goes by, it becomes less and less likely because of exposure and fatigue."

Turks and Caicos is a magnet for divers who come to explore its clear, shallow waters and reefs — conditions that also make it treacherous for boaters unfamiliar with the jagged outcroppings of coral that lie menacingly just below the surface in some places.

Map: Boat capsizes near Turks and Caicos Islands
Y. Yajima  /  AP

Hiding from the police
The Haitians had been at sea for three days when they spotted a police vessel and tried to hide, accidentally steering the boat onto a reef, survivor Alces Julien told The Associated Press.

"We saw police boats and we tried to hide until they passed," he said at a hospital where survivors were treated for dehydration. "We hit a reef and the boat broke up."

But Deputy Police Commissioner Hubert Hughes said officers were not pursuing the migrant vessel — which did not have a motor — and were involved only as rescuers.

"They were traveling in waters that are quite dangerous if you don't know the area quite well," he said.

Rescuers found survivors stranded on two reefs roughly two miles from West Caicos Island, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag, a Coast Guard spokesman. Most were ferried to land by Turks and Caicos authorities in small boats.

Five survivors were found on West Caicos after apparently swimming ashore, Hughes said.

Been said one Haitian man dove off a rescue boat and tried to escape, but was caught.

"It wasn't hard to get him; he was already tired," he said.

Johnson said the boat sank Monday afternoon, but Hughes said it might have been Sunday night. Turks and Caicos authorities reported the capsizing Monday to the Coast Guard, which patrols the region for drug traffickers and illegal migrants and often helps in search and rescue efforts.

Vessels 'grossly overloaded'
Survivors told authorities the boat set out from northern Haiti with about 160 passengers, then stopped at an unknown location and picked up 40 others before sinking near the Turks and Caicos, an island chain between Haiti and the Bahamas, Johnson said. She said overloading appeared to be a factor.

"These vessels, they are grossly overloaded," she said. "Two hundred people on a sailboat is astronomical."

Nearly 60 survivors were surrounded by private security guards at the two-story gymnasium, a beige, concrete structure near the island's small airport.

"The people are being taken care of," said Donald Mettlus, an official from the Haitian Embassy who visited them. "They can walk. They are in good health."

Haitian migrants captured in the region are normally returned to the northeastern city of Cap-Haitien. A Haitian official there said he was busy processing 124 migrants returned by U.S. authorities on Monday and did not know when the survivors from Turks and Caicos might arrive. Been said 50 of the survivors were being flown home Tuesday.

Sheila Laplanche, a spokeswoman for Haitian President Rene Preval, said the government had no comment.

People-smuggling well-established in Haiti
People-smuggling is a well-established, word-of-mouth industry in impoverished Haiti. Brokers ply poor neighborhoods and marketplaces, offering spots for about $500. Many of the boats leave under the cover of night from a small barrier island called La Tortue, off the northeast coast.

The migrants routinely are trying to reach the United States, though many stay in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos and find work to escape misery in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, 1,491 Haitians were intercepted at sea between Oct. 1, 2008 and June 2, 2009. During the previous fiscal year, 1,582 Haitians were intercepted.

Haitians often pool their money to send a family member hardy enough to survive the perilous journey, often in crowded, filthy conditions without food or much water.

Cheryl Little, the executive director for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, says Haitians rarely meet those who profit from the smugglers. Haitians smuggled into the U.S. usually don't want to discuss those who brought them, fearful of retaliation against relatives back home.

Louis Harold Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the Bahamas, said the tragedy reflects the depth of his country's poverty even as it enjoys a rare period of political stability.

"The rate of growth right now in Haiti is not enough to provide jobs for a great number of people and prevent them from risking their life," Joseph said.

Past tragedy
In May 2007, an overcrowded sloop carrying more than 160 migrants capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands . Some of the victims were eaten by sharks. The 78 people who survived accused a Turks and Caicos patrol boat of ramming their vessel as they approached shore and towing them into deeper water.

In May, a boat carrying at about 30 mainly Haitian migrants capsized off Florida's coast, killing at least nine people , including a pregnant woman.

Migrants around the world regularly risk death in search of a better life. Hundreds of people die each year trying to reach the United States across the desert border with Mexico or the Florida Straits.

Hundreds more die each year on the journey from North Africa to southern Europe. One wooden boat carrying 257 migrants — including 70 women and two children — sank in March only three hours from Libya, drowning more than 200 people in the Mediterranean.

Tens of thousands of Africans set out by boat each year for Europe and the Middle East. More than 4,500 bodies — mostly of Moroccans — have been recovered in the Strait of Gibraltar since 2002, advocates say. The U.N. says 50,000 Somalis and others crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen last year. An estimated 949 didn't survive.

Experts say the numbers of Africans seeking a better life in Europe have dwindled dramatically this year, in large part because the global economic crisis is putting a damper on migrants' dreams of a better life.

More on Haiti

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