Hours after the sailing vessel overturned in the moonlit waters a half-mile off the Turks and Caicos Islands, a Coast Guard helicopter arrived at the scene. Searchers found approximately 20 deceased persons in the water, and 10 survivors clinging to the hull of the capsized vessel, Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Barry Bena told CBS News Radio.
Some of the bodies had savage bite wounds.
Rescuers from the Turks and Caicos and the U.S. Coast Guard recovered 78 survivors, said Bena. There were 36 confirmed dead. Authorities were still searching for dozens of others who are missing.
The Coast Guard sent a cutter and a C-130 aircraft to join the search. Survivors were taken to a detention center on the island of Providenciales in the British territory.
An Associated Press reporter saw bodies, some with missing feet and limbs, that were fished out of the water and taken to the port of South Dock.
"We have 17 confirmed dead," said a harried Turks and Caicos government official who would not be identified because she was not authorized to speak on the record. "Five or six small boats of ours are out searching. The survivors are being fed."
Exactly how many people died was still unclear, because some bodies may have drifted before they could be recovered.
It could be the deadliest boat disaster in years for Haitian migrants, who travel on tightly-packed vessels. The 150 people tossed into the sea Friday were on a boat only about 25 feet long.
"When it's done that way, it takes almost nothing for a disaster to occur," Bena said in a telephone interview from Miami. "A strong wind, or a sea swell or people moving around can capsize a boat in an instant."
Already this year the Coast Guard has stopped 1,171 Haitian migrants trying to get into the U.S., just 27 short of the total for all of last year, reports CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella.
"We have had a significant increase in Haitian migrant activity this year," the Coast Guard's Eric Pare said.
The numbers show that Haitians are still desperate to flee their impoverished country a year after democracy was restored with the election of President Rene Preval. Preval replaced an interim government that took over after a bloody rebellion ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Some 3,229 Haitians were intercepted during that turbulent year.
Preval, who is hugely popular among Haiti's poor majority, has teamed with U.N. peacekeepers to crack down on gangs blamed for a kidnapping epidemic. He's also seeking foreign investment to help lift the nation from poverty.
But Haiti is still mired in economic struggles and political instability that fuel attempts to reach the United States, said Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Florida.
Friday's tragedy underscored "one of the greatest fears that we always have in the community," he said — "knowing that many of those refugees do not make it in their attempt to make the Florida shore."
The Coast Guard said the migrant vessel had overturned while being towed by a Turks and Caicos police boat at 4:30 a.m., but local authorities said the police boat arrived on the scene only after it capsized.
In February an estimated 50 Haitian migrants were lost at sea after a fuel tank exploded and set their fiberglass boat ablaze off the Dominican Republic. Two survivors were rescued by an American yacht.