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Haitian Plight

Anatomy of a rescue

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 7, 2000

They dropped anchor near one of many deserted tropical isles in the Bahamas, ready to relax. Somebody broke out a bottle of German white wine, and the three couples settled in to share stories of their adventures.

What they saw next would become their most shocking tale of all.

First, they noticed the gray hull of a sailboat. Just a flash of mast that disappeared around a curve of the barren Flamingo Cay. Then, a dozen people staggered over the crest of the island, waving yellow flags and empty water containers, their dark faces a sharp contrast to the white sand. The three couples watched as the beach filled with ailing families and made a decision that would save lives -- 288 in all.

The people they would comfort and nourish were refugees fleeing Haiti who had been marooned late last month without food or water after a desperate 11-day sea journey.

"We were relaxing and talking like old friends do," Carol Ogden, 50, said by telephone from Georgetown, the Bahamas, on Thursday. "When we saw people coming over the hill, we knew something was wrong." Ogden, of Port St. Lucie, and her husband, Jack; their friends, Dr. Peter Berry and his wife, Louise, from Atlanta, and another couple piled into dinghies and came ashore at about 5 p.m. There they found the first of two dead bodies awash in the surf and a crowd of desperate men, women and children. Berry, a retired physician, quickly saw that the Haitians couldn't live more than 24 hours without water. He began sorting through the weak and battered group of 80 to 100 refugees, attempting to care for them amid the chaos. None of the rescuers spoke French, but a man named Etienne spoke a little English. The boat's captain and crew spoke Spanish.

"Where is the village?" they asked. "Which way to the States?"

As more Haitians arrived from the other side of the rocky hill, where Coast Guard officers later found a wrecked sailboat, the American couples returned to their boats to begin generating fresh water.

Many of the refugees could barely swallow, Berry said. He had to hold one pregnant woman's head while he poured water into her mouth.

In all, the Ogdens and Berrys distributed more than 200 gallons of water while ministering to the Haitians April 26 and the next day, until Coast Guard helicopters arrived with food and minimal medical supplies. The couples left Flamingo Cay just before the last refugees and docked in Georgetown, the first port where the Haitians were treated.

There, Berry, 60, was attempting to set up a fund for sailors like himself to contribute to the medical clinic in Georgetown. He said he came up with the idea the night of the rescue.

"We all drank a little too much rum trying to forget, but we stayed up all night again. The images, they're hard to forget," said Berry, calling the fund "a token effort." "We all probably take away more than we give," he said.

Most of the Haitians have recovered, and Bahamian authorities have already returned about 200 to Haiti.

Those shivering on Flamingo Cay that Wednesday evening were among the first of what some officials fear will be a growing wave of refugees headed for Florida's east coast, smuggled through the Bahamas.

That night, two brothers lifted their shirts to display burns and bullet wounds and told retired real estate agent Jack Ogden, 56, about being shot and tortured in Haiti, their parents killed. Others spoke of the 12 fellow passengers who died during the trip, some from dehydration, some during the shipwreck. A young mother handed her lethargic 3-month-old son, clad in a pink dress, to Louise Berry, 59, and ran off. Berry brought the infant back to her boat, cleaned him up and returned him, and a jug of water, to his mother on the beach.

Many in the group were so weak they never made it that far. As darkness fell, the Ogdens and the Berrys had to search with flashlights for Haitians in the bushes, too ill to move. When Louise Berry discovered two men armed with a machete and a knife, she demanded that the weapons be handed over. They were. Peter Berry began evaluating the condition of the dehydrated refugees as the Ogdens helped convert salt to fresh water using pumps aboard their boat, the Motu; the Berrys' boat, Tango; and the other couple's boat, the Magic. They also brought what food they had: loaves of bread, trail mix, tuna fish, beans, and rice packed in sandwich bags. Many Haitians could stomach only small portions, and distribution provoked disorder.

Between trips ferrying food and water to the beach, the Ogdens tried to contact the Coast Guard on shortwave radio.

The couple, described by neighbors in Port St. Lucie as accomplished boaters familiar with the Bahamian waters, were unaware the Coast Guard no longer monitored the frequency. The Americans would later learn that passing sailboats heard their distress signal, but only one chose to respond.

"They just said they couldn't handle it. It would have been very helpful to have more water," Berry said. When they finally reached the Coast Guard on a satellite phone aboard the Magic about 7:30 p.m., they were told it would be hours before the nearest helicopter arrived from its Nassau station 400 miles away. They lighted fires and flares on the beach -- and waited.

A heartbreaking memory. During their night on the island, Berry said many refugees became sick while huddling in the rain, and two Haitians attempted to board their sailboats. One stricken teenager swam out to sea and drowned. Carol Ogden was still trying to radio for help when she saw him vanish into the clear water. Then she heard moaning from a woman standing on the beach as the Berrys pulled the body back to shore, a woman she knew instantly was the teen's mother.

"That mournful wailing into the night, that is what I'll take away with me," Carol Ogden, a former advertising executive said. "Maybe it was naive, wishful thinking, but we believed someone would help us. These people had tried everything, and things were not going well."

The first Coast Guard helicopter could carry only 11 refugees, and Berry had to select them. Then he had to decide which four among the sickest remaining on the island would get IVs.

"These people were unconscious. We had to pick the sickest. A lot of it was pretty random," he said.

The Coast Guard does not routinely patrol waters off Flamingo Cay, said Petty Officer Sylvia Olvera. Although officers do get regular calls from sailors reporting possible illegal immigrants or smugglers, she said the doctor's ability to treat refugees and remain at the scene aided rescue efforts.

"He notified us, he was there and he took over," she said. "He helped these people as best he could."

The two couples returned to Flamingo Cay two days after the rescue and found the beach deserted, cleared of trash bags that held the refugees' possessions, their plastic hangers and soaked clothing. Although they hope the fund in Georgetown will help future refugees, Peter Berry and Carol Ogden said the problem they faced on the beach will not disappear as easily as the 288 refugees without greater U.S. political aid and attention.

"We don't feel the problems the Haitians are facing should be solved on the beaches," Ogden said. "People are always blaming the Coast Guard for not getting there soon enough, but they cannot solve the humanitarian issues."

Staff researchers Sammy Alzofon and Geni Guseila contributed to this story.

molly_hennessy_fiske@pbpost.com

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