SYDNEY — Australians on a high cliff watched helplessly Wednesday as a wooden boat smuggling about 70 would-be migrants was smashed against the rocks of Christmas Island by monstrous waves, dumping screaming men, women and children into the stormy surf. At least 28 people died.
The deaths underscored the dangers faced by hundreds of refugees who have tried to sail from Indonesia to Australia in recent years — often in cramped, barely seaworthy boats — to start new lives after escaping from poor, war-ravaged countries.
"It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful," island resident Simon Prince told The Associated Press.
"We threw ropes over the cliffs and we must have thrown in a couple of hundred life jackets," one island resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the West Australian newspaper.
"About 15 or 20 people managed to get into the jackets but there are bodies all over the water. There are dead babies, dead women and dead children in the water," the resident said.
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Some of those aboard were from Iraq, Home Minister Brendan O'Connor said from Christmas Island.
In Canberra, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Sky News that 28 people died and 44 have been rescued. Of those saved, 11 were under age 18.
Bowen said that up to 100 people could have been aboard the vessel, although O'Connor said the exact number is still unknown and a rescue effort would resume at dawn Thursday for any survivors.
Women and children were among the dead, Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service sent doctors to the island to treat 30 injured victims, said Joeley Pettit-Scott, the group's spokeswoman. Three people were critically injured, two men with head injuries and one woman with blunt abdominal trauma, she said.
Photos and video from witnesses showed the boat crashing into jagged rocks and breaking apart, as well as people floating in the water amid the wreckage. The boat was about 20 to 30 feet long, with a cabin covered by a sheet of fabric or plastic.
Prince, who lives next to the cliff where the boat crashed, said he was awakened early Wednesday by what he thought were cheers. When he walked to the cliff, he determined that they were cries for help from a boat just offshore.
"The engine had failed," Prince told the AP. "They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty."
Prince called police and soon there were dozens of locals standing on the cliff, wondering how they could help despite the storm and crashing waves. He said the boat tossed for an hour before it finally hit the rocks.
"When the boat hit the cliff, there was a sickening crack. All the people on board rushed to the land side, which is the worst thing they could do, but I don't think anybody could swim," he said.
Resident Michael Foster watched in horror as women and children screamed for help in the churning seas. "They had lifejackets on them, but the water was just pushing them up ... and throwing them towards the rocks," Foster said. "It was a pretty horrible situation."
''I saw a person dying in front of me and there was nothing we could do to save them,'' Kamar Ismail, a Christmas Island councilor, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
''Babies, children, maybe 3 or 4 years old, they were hanging on to bits of timber, they were screaming 'help, help, help'. We were throwing lifejackets out to them but many of them couldn't swim a few meters (yards) to reach them," he added.
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Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said the vessel was a people smuggler's boat.
"This incident is a tragic reminder of the danger faced by people fleeing persecution and human rights violations in their home countries, and the desperate measures they will resort to in search of safety," said Richard Towle, the United Nations Refugee Agency's regional representative.
Melissa Fleming of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expressed "deep shock and sorrow" at the loss of life.
"We are encouraged by reports that the quick rescue action saved the lives of as many as 41 passengers," she said. "But dozens more drowned."
Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for Refugee Action Coalition, blamed the government's policies, news.com.au reported.
"Our heart goes out to the people and their families of the asylum seekers who have lost their lives, so close to the possibility of protection, [but] government anti-refugee policy is responsible for the tragedy on Christmas Island," he said.
Christmas Island is a remote Australian territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and a frequent target of refugee hopefuls, who are housed in a detention center there.
In recent years, many asylum seekers have come from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Myanmar. Generally, they first fly to Indonesia and then continue on to Australia by sea.
International Organization for Migration spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said asylum seekers pay $6,000-$7,000 to people smugglers, only to be told to pay another $1,000-$1,500 for the last stretch from Indonesia to Australia.
"Indonesia has been a stepping stone for economic migrants. ... Many become stranded in Indonesia when they run out of money, are cheated by people smugglers, or are intercepted by the Indonesian authorities," Chauzy said.
According the U.N. refugee agency, an estimated 848 people died or disappeared in 2009 in Italy, Yemen, Spain, and Greece — the main areas worldwide of large-scale migration.
"Climbing over razor wire fences, taking to sea in leaking boats or stowing away in airless containers, refugees and migrants around the world risk their lives every day in desperate attempts to find safety or a better life," the UNHCR said on its website.
One of the deadliest incidents in the region occurred on Oct. 19, 2001, when 374 people died — most of them believed to be asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq — in the sinking of a refugee boat en route from Indonesia to Australia.
In October 2009, a boat believed to be carrying about 100 asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia disappeared and may have sunk, officials said.
In March of that same year, 237 people — most of them African migrants — drowned when a wooden vessel bound for Europe from Libya capsized in the Mediterranean.
That summer, a sailboat overloaded with Haitian migrants capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands, and about 80 people were missing and presumed drowned.
The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.