SANTO DOMINGO – The death toll from the shipwreck earlier this weekend off the northeastern Dominican Republic has risen to 16, a navy spokesman said on Sunday.
“We have recovered five bodies, four men and a woman, today, and it is still not known how many people are missing,” navy Sgt. Maj. Leonel Regalado Zorrilla, who is taking part in the rescue operation, said.
The boat, which was carrying more than 70 illegal immigrants bound for Puerto Rico, sank early Saturday.
The vessel’s stern began breaking up due to strong waves and the weight of the passengers, causing it to sink off the coast of the northeastern province of Samana and the eastern province of Hato Mayor, survivors said.
The homemade boat sailed early Friday from Maria Trinidad Sanchez province, which is adjacent to Samana.
“Six people, including a woman listed in serious condition, are being treated at the hospital in Sabana de la Mar,” the navy spokesman said.
Navy cutters, a private plane and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter based in Puerto Rico are taking part in the search and rescue operation, Regalado Zorrilla said.
The bodies of six men and five women were recovered on Saturday from the Caribbean Sea, the navy spokesman said.
“We have orders to continue the search at sea all day, we have good weather today and we hope that more people will be found alive,” Regalado Zorrilla said.
Between 11 and 19 people, including three who were arrested as part of the investigation into the boat’s sinking, were rescued after the shipwreck, emergency management officials said.
One of the survivors, Daniel Cepeda, said he paid 30,000 pesos (about $770), to get on the boat bound for Puerto Rico.
The small boat started to break up and began taking on water, eventually sinking, Cepeda said.
The boat may have been carrying up to 90 people when it sank off the coast of Maria Trinidad Sanchez province, located adjacent to Samana.
Most of the migrants were from the northern part of the Dominican Republic and some had paid up to 40,000 pesos (about $1,000) to be smuggled into Puerto Rico.
Thousands of Dominicans try to reach the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico every year, preferring to risk their lives rather than continue living in poverty in their homeland.
Many migrants drown each year on the treacherous journey across the 100-kilometer (62-mile) Mona Passage on the rickety wooden boats known as “yolas.”