At least 17 migrants from Haiti died when their overloaded boat capsized as it was being towed to shore in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
A marine unit of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force had intercepted the packed sloop about two hours earlier and was escorting it to shore when it abruptly overturned, sparking a frantic search and rescue operation in the pre-dawn darkness.
Karlo Pelissier, the Haitian consul to the Turks and Caicos, said he was told by survivors that several migrants attempted to jump off the 28ft boat and flee to land as they neared the island of Providenciales and that the surge caused the overloaded sloop to overturn.
Officials in the British territory had not confirmed that as the cause of the capsizing.
The authorities rescued 33 migrants, including one 12-year-old boy, and recovered the bodies of 17 people.
Divers and US Coast Guard helicopters assisted in a search for additional survivors or victims in the area where the incident occurred, about 150 yards from shore. A scaled-down search was planned but further casualties were not expected, said Neil Smith, a government spokesman.
The remains of the 12 men and five women killed would be repatriated to Haiti in the next few days after postmortem examinations to establish the cause of death.
Survivors were being detained at a migrant detention centre in Providenciales, the most populated island in the chain south-east of the Bahamas, and there were no major injuries. “They are tired, but they are OK,” Mr Pelissier said after he met them.
The migrants, mostly from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap-Haitien, had set off on their voyage on last Sunday night, he said. They paid $500 (£305) to $1,000 (£610) each and were trying to reach Miami or the Bahamas as well as Turks and Caicos.
“We are saddened by such tragedy and present our condolences and prayers to the families and friends of those affected,” said Salim Succar, an adviser to Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.