As Turks and Caicos police towed an intercepted freighter packed with Haitian migrants, the boat capsized early Wednesday, plunging dozens of people into the water -- and killing at least 17.
The Christmas tragedy is the fourth deadly boating accident involving Haitian migrants in the region since August. The total number of dead: more than 50.
The latest accident is bound to cast scrutiny on the Turks and Caicos marina police, which intercepted the overloaded 40-foot sail freighter just after 3 a.m. Wednesday.
According to government spokesman Neil Smith, the vessel grounded and capsized two hours later -- as it was being towed to shore -- near the south dock of Providenciales. At least 55 migrants may have plunged into the waters.
Rescue crews, including those from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, were scrambled to save the migrants, who were spotted clinging to the hull of the doomed freighter.
More than 30 migrants, including a child, were plucked from the water, according to government news releases. They were being held at an immigration detention center on the island.
As of late Wednesday, 17 bodies -- 12 men and five women -- had been recovered, authorities said. Smith added that a "handful" of the migrants reached shore and escaped.
The search, which was halted late Wednesday as darkness set in and the seas became rougher, will continue Thursday.
Turks and Caicos, home to about 32,000 people, has long been a destination for Haitians seeking work in the territory or trying to reach another country.
The desperation of the Haitian migrants escaping poverty in their homeland has led to frequent disasters in the perilous Caribbean and Atlantic waters.
In November, an estimated 30 people drowned when their overloaded sloop overturned in the waters off the southern Bahamas.
One month earlier, four Haitian women, being smuggled aboard a fishing boat, died when the vessel capsized seven miles off Miami Beach. In August, 14-year-old Haitian girl died and nine other Haitian migrants were taken into custody when a boat smuggling them came ashore in Palm Beach County.
The waters off Turks and Caicos have been particularly dangerous.
In July 2009, at least 15 Haitians died -- and an additional 70 lost at sea -- when a packed sailboat struck a coral reef and broke apart off Turks and Caicos.
Two years earlier, at least 61 Haitians died when their overloaded sloop capsized as Turks and Caicos authorities towed their boat to shore. Some of the 78 survivors accused an island patrol boat of ramming their boat, an allegation the government denied.