Rosa Javier was hesitant to celebrate when police phoned to say her husband and nephew survived three weeks adrift in the Caribbean Sea, while all the other 49 voyagers are assumed dead.
“I feel some relief, but so many lives were lost,” said Javier, whose 19-year-old nephew Reynaldo Ramirez and husband Diomito Rodriguez had set off from the Dominican Republic on Nov. 13 in search of higher-paying jobs in Puerto Rico.
Dominican officials continued searching on Saturday for the missing migrants in waters just south of Haiti’s coast, where the boat was found adrift on Friday morning.
On Friday, two fishermen said they had found the survivors, naked and only able to pronounce a few words before passing out.
Rodriguez and Ramirez were being treated on Saturday for severe dehydration and burns. Authorities were waiting to talk with them once their health improved.
Javier said her nephew and husband were making their first trip abroad, hoping to escape the poverty that afflicts a fourth of the people in the country of 9.5 million.
“He told me he wanted to do something, to be someone,” she said of her husband. “I told him not to leave.”
The survivors were from San Francisco de Macoris, an agricultural center that produces the majority of the country’s rice.
“Desperation has forced people to leave,” Javier said.
The father of Reynaldo Ramirez said shortly after the rescue that he had never lost hope.
“Everybody would say that they were gone, that the sea had taken them,” Bernardo Ramirez said. “People would ask me how my heart felt, and I would tell them that my heart felt that he was still alive.”
Hundreds of migrants have died in recent years while trying to cross the treacherous Mona Passage that separates the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Just weeks ago, five Dominican migrants survived and 28 others died on another boat. The survivors said they ate the flesh of a dead migrant, and were later charged with involuntary manslaughter for helping organize an illegal trip.
The US Coast Guard estimates that the number of Dominicans attempting to come to Puerto Rico declined over past five years, to an estimated 3,000 last year from roughly 10,000.
The trend reflected a relative strengthening of the Dominican economy, but fewer visitors are coming to the tourism-dependent country this year as the world economy falters.