Death toll rises to 47 from Dominican boatwreck

SANTO DOMINGO Thu Feb 9, 2012 2:44am IST

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY Relatives of passengers on an immigrant boat that capsized last Saturday try to identify the victims at a cemetery in Sabana de La Mar February 8, 2012. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY Relatives of passengers on an immigrant boat that capsized last Saturday try to identify the victims at a cemetery in Sabana de La Mar February 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ricardo Rojas

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SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Search crews recovered 22 more bodies from the sea off the coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 47 after an overloaded migrant smuggling vessel capsized.

The boat sank on Saturday in the Bay of Samana off the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. Eighteen passengers were rescued and the Dominican Navy said several were still missing in what officials say is the country's worst people smuggling tragedy in almost eight years.

Volunteers and Navy crews planned to continue the search at least until Thursday, a local official said.

Dominican Navy Captain Ramon Mendez said it was unclear how the rickety wooden vessel sank. "It may have hit a sand bank or capsized in high winds. Or it may have just split apart," he said. "The winds were strong that night out at sea."

The newly recovered bodies were found near the coast of Sabana de la Mar in eastern Dominican Republic and taken to a hospital morgue.

Mourners gathered on Wednesday for mass burial of 21 victims in a common grave near the coast as victims' relatives collected coffins to be transported for burial in their home villages.

The passengers were trying to reach the neighboring U.S. island of Puerto Rico and paid about $1,000 apiece to the organizers of the illegal crossing, investigators said.

Relatives said the Dominican migrants had hoped to find jobs in the United States.

"It was his dream," said Yokalis Rojas, the wife of missing passenger Alfonso Roche, 42, a Civil Defense worker and father of three from San Francisco de Macoris. She said she last saw her husband Saturday morning before he departed.

The boat's captain has been arrested. Mendez identified him as Rey David Zepeda, a 40-year-old former milk delivery man with a history of involvement with illegal sea migration.

Zepeda was detained in 2000 after a boat on which he was a passenger was intercepted by the Navy, and was detained again in 2008 on suspicion of organizing illegal migrant vessels, Mendez said.

Impoverished Dominicans often set out in crude boats known as yolas, trying to cross the Mona Passage and reach Puerto Rico. The treacherous 80-mile (130-km) wide strait links the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and is notorious for dangerous tides, shallow sand banks and sharks.

The vessel left Nagua on the north coast of the Dominican Republic and traveled only a short distance before it sank.

(Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; editing by Todd Eastham)

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