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On poverty-stricken island, Haitians attack rival boat owners

September 11, 1997

GONAVE, Haiti (AP) _ Grieving residents of the Haitian island of Gonave burned the ferry of a man they accused Thursday of using voodoo to cause a rival ferry to sink with hundreds of passengers aboard.

Islanders also tried to lynch the wife of ferry owner Tio Djo, who, fearing for his life, apparently had fled to Miami. Djo’s wooden boat, Tio Djo’s Express, was destroyed.

``You people have good magic. That’s why our people are dead,″ residents shouted as they surrounded Nereus Jean-Joseph, 42, on the outskirts of Anse-a-Galets. Police urged the crowd to be calm.

The ferry Pride of Gonave had left Anse-a-Galets on a one-hour journey northeast to the mainland port of Montrouis, where it capsized and sank Monday. An estimated 200 people drowned.

U.N. officials say only 50 people survived the sinking.

U.S. Navy divers began exploring the wreck Thursday and planned to cut a hole in order to retrieve bodies.

Canadian divers attached to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti recovered dozens of bodies but stopped on Tuesday after two divers suffered decompression sickness. Most of the Canadians were sport divers.

Survivors said the ferry capsized when the captain anchored the vessel and everyone hurried to one side to get off. Doorways in the decks below were locked and there were no life jackets, survivors said.

There was no word from the government Thursday on whether it had opened a formal investigation into the sinking.

Haiti’s National Maritime Service said it had inspected the Pride of Gonave and that it was authorized to handle the 276 passengers it said were aboard. But a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant in Port-au-Prince, Steve Banks, has said it was certified to carry only 80 people.

Women wailed hysterically when one of two bodies floated up to the surface Thursday, 200 yards offshore. The victim was identified as Holland Origene, 31, a medical student at Port-au-Prince University.

``There are too many criminals in this country, and that includes the government,″ said Benita Campbell, 23, a cousin of Origene’s from Miami.

Mourners were angry that Haiti’s government did little to retrieve the bodies before they started decomposing. For a second consecutive day, no Haitian officials were present Thursday.

In Gonave Island, the wife of the ferry owner was surrounded by the crowd at a dirt strip airport where she was waiting to take a charter plane. A university student, Verard Venette, 22, persuaded the crowd to allow him to take Nereus Jean-Joseph to the police station.

There, police Commissioner Pierre Richard addressed several hundred people while an armed policeman stood in front of the station.

``Let justice take its course,″ Richard pleaded.

``I lost my brother,″ someone yelled. ``I lost my ...″ Richard cut them off. ``Everybody lost somebody. The national police of Haiti also lost somebody on that boat. We want justice as much as you.″

There were all kinds of rumors about the disaster in Gonave, a sometimes lawless and desperately poor island afflicted by drought where children’s bellies are bloated by malnutrition. The island’s 104,000 residents make a living burning charcoal, fishing, reselling mainland produce and farming.

In November, residents burned down a police station and the Anse-a-Galets courthouse to protest the police slaying of an innocent bystander. Residents also briefly trapped Haitian and U.N. police officers before the officers were rescued.

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