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Haitians Jump Into Miami River

May 13, 1998

MIAMI (AP) _ As scores of Haitians dashed for freedom all around her, Lisette Rivera couldn’t help rooting for them to get away from pursuing police officers and immigration agents.

Ms. Rivera, who was serving lunch to customers Tuesday at a restaurant on the Miami River near the edge of downtown, watched as the suspected illegal immigrants jumped into the murky river.

Some hid under docks or scurried along the street and jumped into waiting cars. Police rounded up 86 of the Haitians who arrived in the Rose-Marie Express, a rickety, wooden freighter.

``I felt so bad for them _ they’re only trying to make a better life,″ Ms. Rivera said.

``I saw about 10 of them jump into a little Honda _ it was crazy,″ she said. ``And the Honda just drove away.″

Twenty-four of the 86 in custody were minors, and an unknown number of the Haitians probably managed to escape, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said.

The first officer to the scene was a U.S. Customs agent who raced to the dock after receiving a call that a ship might be carrying drugs, said Mark Bastan, U.S. Customs assistant special agent in charge.

``He described it as absolute bedlam. People were running everywhere _ jumping into the river. Some were jumping into cars,″ Bastan said.

The freighter set out from Cap Haitien on Haiti’s northwest coast about four days ago, a Haitian Refugee Center volunteer said.

The U.S. Coast Guard in July began banning wooden freighters such as the Rose-Marie Express from entering the Miami River because they are not considered safe. The ships are generally driven by small diesel engines that would power a small truck.

Miami police spokesman Angel Calzadilla said it’s unusual for such a freighter to make it into the river without being noticed.

``I guess the Coast Guard missed this one,″ he said.