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Old 08-13-2004, 12:27 AM
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Incapacitated Boat Survivors Say Cannibalism Was Suggested

Food Ran Out For Dominican Migrants

NAGUA, Dominican Republic - Migrants lost at sea for nearly two weeks without food and water said Wednesday more than 40 people died during the trip, and at least one woman who refused to give breast milk to passengers was thrown overboard into shark-infested waters.

Many of the 86 people crammed into the wooden boat, about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide, bound for the nearby U.S. territory of Puerto Rico became hysterical when provisions ran out after three days, said Faustina Santana.

Santana was one of 39 migrants found alive Tuesday near this small fishing village, not far from where the boat originally departed.

"People just jumped off," Santana, 27, said from the hospital. "They were going crazy."

Survivors said at least 45 people died during the journey. Of the survivors who were found on Tuesday, eight died in the hospital and many more are in critical condition.

Three women were seen crying on Wednesday, slumped over the body of 24-year-old Johano del Orbe, who died of dehydration in the hospital.

The boat left the Dominican Republic on July 29 and it had almost reached the Puerto Rican island of Desecheo in two days when its engine failed. It was then that the captain abandoned ship, getting on another passing migrant boat and saying he would return with help.

The migrants said they paid $450 for the trip. The captain never returned.

The boat began drifting out to sea and by the third day all of the water and food chocolate, peanuts and sardines had run out. The passengers shared one coconut they found floating in the sea but panic had already started to set in.

Many people mostly older men began dying on the fifth day, the same day the men began demanding that women, even those who were not lactating, provide breast milk.

Two lactating women offered their breast milk to passengers. One who refused to share her milk was thrown overboard by male passengers, Santana said, although some survivors said the woman was pushed overboard after she was already dead.

"One woman refused to give breast milk and the men aboard grabbed her from behind and threw her overboard," Santana said. "They told me to give milk, and I said I couldn't."

The survivors interviewed by The Associated Press said there were no children aboard.

Vernanva de La Cruz, 19, was one of the women who offered her breast milk to more than eight people. She left her two children, one of whom is six-months-old, at home to make the trip.

The other woman who gave up her milk died after helping nearly a dozen people. "People started biting her everywhere to get at her nipples," de La Cruz said from her hospital bed. "She had bruises everywhere when she died."

It was unclear when or how the woman died, said de La Cruz, who did not know what happened to the third woman who Santana said was thrown overboard.

Rafael Emilio Chalas, director of the Antonio Yapor Hospital in Nagua 112 miles northeast of Santo Domingo and about 30 miles from El Limon where the boat left told a Dominican radio station Tuesday that some people said they resorted to cannibalism to survive.

One survivor, however, said the migrants decided against it.

"Some wanted to eat the dead bodies, just their ears, but others of us said 'no,' and if we're going to die, we'll all die together," said Ramon Ballano, 40, another survivor.

Worried relatives notified authorities when they did not hear from their loved ones in the days after they left. The journey to Puerto Rico can take a day in good weather.

Dozens of relatives filled hospital corridors Wednesday looking for their loved ones. A funeral for some of the victims was planned for Wednesday afternoon.

The wary father of one passenger entered Santana's hospital room, showed her a picture of his son and asked if he was among those who jumped. She looked at the photo and shook her head, saying the man jumped overboard but couldn't say when.

"It's way too many lives lost needlessly," said Lt. Eric Willis, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard (news - web sites), which sent cutters and planes to search for the migrants. "And they keep coming."

There has been a huge influx of Dominican migrants to Puerto Rico in the past year as inflation in their Caribbean homeland has topped 30 percent, unemployment has reached 16 percent and blackouts plague the nation.

More than 7,000 Dominican migrants have been detained trying to reach wealthier Puerto Rico since Oct. 1, more than twice the number for the previous 12 months.

"What I earn doesn't give us enough," said Ballano. "I had no future here."

At least 60 migrants have been confirmed dead in the Mona Passage, a shark-infested and rough channel between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. But the number of fatalities are likely higher, Coast Guard authorities say.

There were nine confirmed migrant deaths in the Mona Passage last year.

The migrants' boat, called a yola, had no seats and no oars. After the engine failed, passengers put up a makeshift flag made from a white T-shirt, hoping that other passing boats would stop to help.

On Monday, the Dominican Navy rescued 19 boat migrants stranded at sea for two days after their outboard motor failed. They were treated for dehydration.
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