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U.S. Navy sends in divers to search for bodies off Haiti

September 10, 1997

MONTROUIS, Haiti (AP) _ U.S. Navy divers joined U.N. peacekeepers today to help pull bodies from a sunken Haitian ferry, but the operation was hampered by the divers’ inability to reach many parts of the ship.

Two U.S. Navy divers arrived in Montrouis to help Canadians from the U.N. peacekeeping force recover those killed when the Pride of Gonave sank Monday. More U.S. Navy divers are due Thursday.

The Canadian divers say they counted fewer than 200 bodies inside the sunken ship _ a number far lower than estimates made by officials immediately after the vessel went down 200 yards off this fishing village.

The divers and other rescuers have recovered 79 bodies. Crews placed the bodies in transparent plastic bags and laid them on a pebble beach for mourners to identify.

The operation slowed today because the divers’ scuba gear was too large to allow them to use a spiral staircase on the ferry, said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Dave Forslund.

Only four of the 22 U.N. divers have professional experience. The rest are recreational divers, Forslund said. ``We can’t do any more safely with them,″ he said.

President Rene Preval blamed Haiti’s poverty when he visited the scene Tuesday, saying a dock _ a $1 million project which Haiti cannot afford _ might have prevented the tragedy.

Haitian coast guard officials initially said as many as 400 people were feared dead. Health Minister Rodolphe Mallebranche put the toll at 500. On Tuesday, officials said 276 tickets were sold to ferry passengers and that there were 50 survivors.

After recovering about 50 bodies, divers said Tuesday they counted 100 to 115 bodies floating in the two lower decks of the ferry.

The director of Haiti’s National Maritime Service, Venel Pierre, said that a government inspector counted 276 passengers boarding the vessel. He said a recent inspection showed the ship was in ``perfect condition to carry 250-300 passengers.″

The ferry apparently capsized after the captain swung it around to allow passengers to disembark from the stern, and everyone hurried to one side.

Because there is no dock at Montrouis, passengers normally are taken to shallow waters in rowboats.

``If there had been a dock, it might not have happened,″ Preval said. ``Once again a tragedy has struck, revealing the extreme poverty of the infrastructure of this country.″

Hundreds of millions of foreign aid dollars are on hold while Haitians try to form a new government following the June resignation of the prime minister.

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