SYDNEY (AP): Rescuers were returning to treacherous seas Thursday to hunt for any possible survivors after a wooden boat smuggling up to 100 asylum seekers smashed against the cliffs of Christmas Island, 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," Bowen told Sky News.
He said sea conditions were still dangerous as a cyclone hovers northwest of the island.
A temporary morgue has been established and a disaster victim identification team was arriving later Thursday. 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 counseling 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 Wednesday morning as the boat struggled in the monstrous waves and then crashed, dumping screaming men, women and children into the stormy surf.
"It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful," island resident Simon Prince told The Associated Press.
Women and children were among the dead, Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said.
Photos and video from witnesses showed the boat crashing into jagged rocks and breaking apart, as well as people floating in the water amid the wreckage. 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 awakened early Wednesday by what he thought were cheers. When he walked to the cliff, he determined that they were 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 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.
"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 for help in the churning seas. "They had lifejackets on them, but the water was just pushing them up ... and throwing them toward the rocks," Foster said. "It was a pretty horrible situation."
"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.
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.
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 by sea.
According to the UNHCR, an estimated 848 people died or disappeared 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 said on its website.
One of the deadliest incidents in the region occurred on Oct. 19, 2001, when 374 people died - most of them believed to be asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq - in the sinking of a refugee boat en route from Indonesia to Australia.
In October 2009, a boat believed to be carrying about 100 asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia disappeared and may have sunk, officials said.
In March of that same year, 237 people - most of them African migrants - drowned when a wooden vessel bound for Europe from Libya capsized in the Mediterranean.
That summer, a sailboat overloaded with Haitian migrants capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands, and about 80 people were missing and presumed drowned.- theStar