updated 2/6/2004 3:11:31 PM ET 2004-02-06T20:11:31

Swift tides and ice-cold waters killed 19 people hunting for shellfish in a treacherous northern English bay, police said Friday. Authorities suspect the dead and 16 survivors, mostly Chinese nationals, were the victims of people-smugglers and work-gang operators.

Recovery teams continued their search of Morecambe Bay, which is known for its dangerous, fast-rising waters, but authorities said there was little hope of finding more survivors in the strong currents.

The dead — 17 men and two women — were among a group of workers who were cut off from the shore at Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, northwestern England, on Thursday evening as they searched for cockles, a shellfish delicacy that lives just below the surface of muddy sand.

“This is an absolutely appalling human tragedy,” Home Office minister Beverley Hughes told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Lancashire Deputy Chief Constable Julia Hodson said the survivors included two Europeans and 14 Chinese nationals, nine of whom had requested asylum before the accident and four of whom have asked for it since. She said it was still unclear whether they were working illegally and who employed them.

“These are what a coroner would view as suspicious deaths,” she said.

The tragedy was reminiscent of the June 2000 deaths of 58 Chinese immigrants who suffocated in the back of a tomato truck as it crossed the English Channel on a ferry. Authorities said then that they were cracking down on the “snakehead” gangs that get tens of thousands of dollars per person to transport desperate migrants to western Europe.

Hodson said Kent police who worked to identify the tomato truck victims were advising the Lancashire force.

The Right Rev. Patrick O’Donoghue, Catholic bishop of Lancaster, urged the government to require that all work-gang organizers be licensed and regulated.

“This appalling tragedy raises fundamental questions about whether or not we are providing enough protection to these migrant workers who contribute enormously to our economy and our welfare,” he said.

Geraldine Smith, who represents the Morecambe Bay area in Parliament, said the difficulty of regulating cockle-collecting meant the drownings had been “a tragedy waiting to happen.”

“The cockles which were on the beach were worth a great deal of money, but very tragically I would imagine that those poor people who lost their lives were making very little of that money, and were probably victims of exploitation,” Smith told BBC radio.

Search efforts were complicated by uncertainty over how many cockle-collectors were in the bay — the initial emergency report was of about 25 people but rescuers later acknowledged they had no idea how many were in the group. Coastguard spokesman Martin Collins said some may have fled.

The 120-square-mile bay is notorious for its fast-rising tides and quicksands. A British man and his 9-year-old son drowned in the mud flats two years ago after becoming disoriented in fog and getting trapped by the rapidly incoming tide.

Hodson said heavy rains had made the bay even more dangerous than usual and shifted some of the sandy channels where cockle collectors work.

Police said several of the recovered bodies were found on a sand bank in the northern part of the bay, several miles from Hest Bank where the group was reported missing.

Commander Harry Roberts, of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, said none had any safety gear and some had stripped naked as they tried to swim to safety in the bitterly cold waters.

“The water was not much above freezing, the wind was blowing a force six, and the water had been moving at four to five knots,” Roberts said. “I would guess after half an hour in those conditions you would be in big trouble.”

In August last year, police arrested 37 Chinese people in the Chatsworth area of Morecambe after concerns were raised about the scale of cockle picking on the sands at the bay.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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