February 17

This Day in History

Disaster

Feb 17, 1993:

Ferry sinks near Haiti

Approximately 900 people drown when a passenger ferry, the Neptune, overturns near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on this day in 1993. The ferry was dangerously overloaded, and carried no lifeboats or emergency gear.

The Neptune was a 150-foot boat, with three decks, that made regular trips transporting people, farm animals and some cargo from Jeremie to Port-au-Prince. The 150-mile voyage usually took about 12 hours. The Neptune should have carried a maximum of 650 people, but it regularly took on larger numbers of passengers. In addition, the boat was notorious for its lack of safety equipment.

On the night of February 17, the Neptune was about halfway to Port-au-Prince when it encountered bad weather. There was no passenger list, but it is believed that approximately 1,200 people were on board the ferry at the time, along with numerous animals and a large amount of charcoal. When the Neptune began to roll in the water, the passengers panicked. Many rushed to the upper deck and to one side of the boat. Captain Benjamin St. Clair later reported that the sudden shift in weight caused the upper deck to collapse and the boat to capsize.

St. Clair survived, as did nearly 300 others, some of whom were not rescued from the water until two days later. The rescue response was delayed because the Neptune lacked an emergency radio, and Haiti does not have a Navy. The United States Coast Guard joined in the rescue effort the following day, but recovered many more bodies than survivors.

The exact casualty toll will never be known, but it is estimated that 900 people lost their lives in this disaster.

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