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At Least 131 Believed Dead in Ferry Accident

November 12, 1986 GMT

MONTROUIS, Haiti (AP) _ Relatives of victims on a crowded ferry that sank off La Gonave gathered on a rocky beach Wednesday to await word of their kin. Haitian officials said 20 bodies had been recovered and another 111 were missing and presumed dead.

″The boat was loaded top to bottom,″ said Thalus St. Fleur, 50, whose cousin was on the boat that sank at midday Tuesday. ″There were people on the top and there were people below deck. There were so many people it was murder.″

The ferry, the 50-foot-long wooden Oque Lele, went down about a mile from the wharf in Anse-a-Galets on La Gonave, an island in the Bay of Port-au- Prince.

Tuesday was market day on La Gonave. Most of the passengers on the ferry, which shuttles between Montrouis on the mainland and La Gonave, were on their way home with goods they had bought to sell on the island.

″We think it (the ferry) was overcrowded,″ Anais Chavenet, a spokeswoman for the Information Ministry, said in Port-au-Prince, the capital of this Caribbean country. It was not immediately known how many people the privately owned ferry was authorized to take.

Ms. Chavenet said cause of the accident was not known.

By nightfall, the Coast Guard had recovered 20 bodies and reported 111 missing, said Christian Theodore, director of the National Disaster Relief Agency in Port-au-Prince. Nineteen people survived the sinking, he said.

Miguel Mawfoud, acting director of the Catholic Relief Services, gave different figures. He said 220 people were aboard and 20 of them survived.

Mrs. St. Fleur was one of about 30 people who gathered at Montrouis to seek information about the fates of relatives who had boarded the ferry.

They said people who had witnessed the accident told them only the passengers on deck had a chance to survive.

Isnel Angrand, a government official on La Gonave, said there was not enough equipment to conduct a proper search and rescue operation.

The only helicopters in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, belong to the army, and their use is restricted. No charter planes or boats were available for hire Wednesday morning.

″I was expecting this to happen at any time,″ said Angrand. ″They tried to cram too many people on these boats.″

The relatives gathered at Montrouis said officials in Anse-a-Galets usually check the ferry’s load before it is allowed to leave the port but no such examination is made when the vessel leaves Montrouis, a stretch of rocky beach about 60 miles north of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

In Montrouis, the ferry anchors a few feet offshore and passengers are carried aboard by people who charge 10 cents for the service.

″If there was a port, a police station (in Montrouis), the ship captains would not put so many people on their boat. They just want to make more money,″ said Ania St. Fleur, 22, another relative.

The relatives said had been waiting in Montrouis since early Wednesday and not heard from any government officials.

″The poor peasant has to go on his own and worry about what happened to the body of his kin,″ said Ambroise Senat, 29, a La Gonave resident who had planned to take the ferry Tuesday but decided against it at the last minute.

About 50,000 people live on La Gonave, about 30 miles west of Port-au- Prince. Traders regularly go back and forth with goods from the mainland, and the ferry made daily trips. La Gonave can only be reached by ferry.

Overcrowding is common in impoverished Haiti, whether in buses packed with people hanging on for a free ride, in the colorful ″tap-tap″ taxis or in commuter boats that travel to four offshore islands.

The military-civilian government that replaced ousted dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier eight months ago has not issued a statement on the incident.