A tramp freighter packed with hundreds of Haitian migrants ran aground off Miami's Key Biscayne today after trying to outrun a Coast Guard patrol, the Coast Guard said.
Coast Guard crews took 406 people--all those on board--off the overcrowded 60-foot wooden vessel safely, racing against an ebbing tide that threatened to capsize the grounded freighter and toss those on board into the water or trap them below deck.
"It was a pretty big concern," Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Carr said. "It's the last thing you want. You didn't want a flip where it could have been tragic."
The boat was first intercepted about 30 minutes after midnight as New Year's revelers in Miami were ringing in the new century and fireworks lit the sky.
The captain refused to stop but got stuck off Elliott Key about an hour later. He freed the vessel and again tried to evade the Coast Guard but was grounded about 4 a.m. in Biscayne Bay.
Four rescue boats, five patrol boats and two cutters had circled the boat, stuck in shallow waters about 1 1/2 miles off Key Biscayne, not far from Stiltsville, an unusual collection of houses built on stilts over the shoals of Biscayne Bay.
A Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead as crews talked with the migrants, many of whom refused to leave the grounded freighter. Life jackets were passed to those who would take them.
Thousands of Haitians have attempted the 600-mile voyage from their impoverished Caribbean homeland to Florida shores, usually in unseaworthy sailboats or small, leaky coastal freighters. Most are considered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to be fleeing poverty rather than political oppression and are repatriated.
The rescued migrants--a group that could include some Dominicans, officials said--were taken aboard Coast Guard cutters for interviews by U.S. authorities. It was likely that most would be sent back, Coast Guard Commander Ron LaBrec said.
It was the largest group of Haitians intercepted off Florida shores in more than a year. The Coast Guard intercepted 363 Haitians at sea last year, compared with 1,206 in 1998.
The plight of the Haitian migrants spurred a noisy demonstration late tonight outside the Miami Beach Coast Guard station.
Dozens of Haitians and African Americans, led by Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.), waved placards reading "Equal Justice for Haitians" as they demanded that the migrants be allowed to stay in the United States.
Haitian Americans have long protested the difference in treatment of Haitian and Cuban migrants trying to reach Florida. While Haitians are usually sent back home immediately, Cubans who manage to set foot on U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay and are ultimately given permanent residency.
CAPTION: The Coast Guard works against time to transport migrants from their crammed freighter onto larger cutters. The vessel was in danger of capsizing.