Rescuers have returned to treacherous seas to hunt for any possible survivors after a wooden boat smuggling up to 100 asylum seekers smashed against the cliffs of Christmas Island, Australia, tossing people overboard and killing at least 28.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen said 44 people had been rescued, including 11 children.
He said up to 100 people could have been on board the vessel when it splintered against the limestone rocks.
The deaths underscored the dangers faced by hundreds of refugees who have tried to sail from Indonesia to Australia in recent years – often in cramped, barely seaworthy boats – to start new lives after escaping from poor, war-ravaged countries.
“Rescuers will be doing their best over the course of the morning to salvage and rescue any person still in the water and to get any bodies we can get out of the water,” Mr Bowen told Sky News.
He said sea conditions were still dangerous as a cyclone hovers north west of the island.
A temporary morgue has been established and a disaster victim identification team is arriving later. The injured are being treated in the local hospital and two women with the most severe injuries have been flown to Perth in mainland Australia for treatment.
“Our concerns primarily are focused on ensuring that they are looked after properly to recover from this very difficult experience,” home affairs minister Brendan O’Connor told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio. “They’ll be provided all services that they require, whether it’s medical or counselling services.”
The Royal Flying Doctor Service sent doctors to the island to treat 30 injured victims, said Joeley Pettit-Scott, the group’s spokeswoman. Three people were critically injured, two men with head injuries and one woman with blunt abdominal trauma, she said.
Christmas Island residents watched helplessly from a high cliff as the boat struggled in huge waves and then crashed, dumping screaming men, women and children into the stormy surf.