SYDNEY (AP) — A wooden boat packed with asylum seekers smashed against jagged rocks in a storm off an Australian island Wednesday, flinging terrified occupants into churning waters and killing at least 27 people. (Scroll down for video.)
Christmas Island residents on a cliff above watched in horror as the boat – carrying about 70 people – broke apart with a crack, dumping screaming men, women and children into monstrous waves that pounded them against the rocks.
"It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful," island resident Simon Prince told The Associated Press.
Officials gave no immediate word on the nationality of the victims. The Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement Wednesday that 27 bodies had been recovered from the water. Forty-one survivors were plucked from the seas, and one person made it to shore.
"The rescue is being conducted in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions," the customs department said. "The search and rescue situation is ongoing."
Women and children were among the dead, Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said in a statement.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service sent doctors to the island to treat 30 injured victims, said Joeley Pettit-Scott, the group's spokeswoman. Three patients were critically injured, two men with head injuries and one woman with blunt abdominal trauma, she said.
Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said the vessel was a people smuggler's boat, but it was not clear where the passengers were from.
Christmas Island is a remote Australian territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and a frequent target of refugee hopefuls, who are housed in a detention center there. Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan who want to start a new life.
"This incident is a tragic reminder of the danger faced by people fleeing persecution and human rights violations in their home countries, and the desperate measures they will resort to in search of safety," said Richard Towle, the United Nations Refugee Agency's regional representative.
Photos and videos taken by witnesses at the scene show the wooden boat crashing into the rocks and breaking apart. The images also show people floating in the water amid the wreckage. It is unclear if they are alive or dead. The boat was about 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) long, with a cabin covered by a sheet of fabric or plastic.
Prince, who lives next to the cliff where the boat crashed, said he was woken early Wednesday by what he thought were cheers. He walked to the cliff and instead heard cries for help from a boat just offshore.
"The engine had failed," Prince told the AP. "They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty."
Prince called the police and soon there were dozens of locals standing on the cliff, wondering how they could help despite the storm and crashing waves. He said the boat tossed for an hour before it finally hit the rocks at the base of the cliff.
"When the boat hit the cliff there was a sickening crack. All the people on board rushed to the land side, which is the worst thing they could do, but I don't think anybody could swim," he said.
Resident Michael Foster watched in horror as women and children screamed out for help in the churning seas below. "They had lifejackets on them, but the water was just pushing them up ... and throwing them towards the rocks," Foster said. "It was a pretty horrible situation."
In recent years, many asylum seekers have come from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Myanmar. Generally, they first fly to Indonesia and then continue on to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats.
According the U.N. refugee agency, an estimated 848 people died or went missing in 2009 in Italy, Yemen, Spain, and Greece – the main areas worldwide of large-scale migration.
"Climbing over razor wire fences, taking to sea in leaking boats or stowing away in airless containers, refugees and migrants around the world risk their lives every day in desperate attempts to find safety or a better life," the UNHCR says on its website.
International Organization for Migration spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said asylum seekers pay $6,000-$7,000 to people smugglers, only to be told to pay another $1,000-$1,500 for the last stretch from Indonesia to Australia.
"Indonesia has been a stepping stone for economic migrants ... Many become stranded in Indonesia when they run out of money, are cheated by people smugglers, or are intercepted by the Indonesian authorities," said Chauzy.
Smith reported from Adelaide, Australia. Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.