August 30, 2004 12:00 PM

On July 29, 87 men and women from the Dominican Republic packed into a flimsy 28-ft.-by-7-ft. boat known as a yola and set out for Puerto Rico. From there, they hoped to join thousands of Dominicans who settle illegally in the U.S. each year—escaping an impoverished country where many families scrape by on a mere $300 a month. Some went alone, like single mother Faustina Santana, 27, who saw her grocery business ruined by chronic power outages; or Odalis de Jesus, 29, who left behind two children to join her husband, a construction worker who had already moved to Puerto Rico. Others, like carpenters Nolberto Mercedes, 32, and Alexander Peralta, 22, took the plunge together. Their 80-mile trip across a shark-infested stretch of sea called the Mona Passage should have taken three days. Instead, the boat got lost in the fog, ran out of gas, drifted off course on a 13-day odyssey—and ended up almost where it started out, but with 48 passengers dead. Those who survived came home with harrowing—and sometimes conflicting—tales. Still recovering from a range of physical ailments, Santana, de Jesus, Mercedes and Peralta told their stories to PEOPLE’S Siobhan Morrissey.

Powered by an outboard motor, the nameless boat set off from the coastal village of Barracote with no oars, no life jackets and, as it turned out, insufficient fuel. Still, at the outset all seemed to go according to plan, and despite cramped conditions, spirits were reasonably high.

Santana: There were 87 of us aboard the boat. Everybody sat on the floor. I ended up in the back and didn’t know anybody. We left at 6 p.m., and in the beginning everybody was happy and nice to each other. Some of us were singing Christian songs and asking God for help to have a good trip.

Mercedes: We saw dolphins on the second day. They leapt in the water and made a squeaking noise.

Peralta: That was the only beautiful thing on the trip.

Most passengers thought they’d brought enough food for a three-day voyage. Mercedes and Peralta took chocolates, cookies and bread. Santana stocked up on chips, popcorn, soda and juice; de Jesus packed salami and cheese. But by day two, their troubles had begun.

Santana: There was a group of passengers, more than 10 people. They waited for people to get sleepy and they would steal our food.

Mercedes: I had $30 in my pocket, and those people took everything. On the third day—when the boat ordinarily would have landed near the island of Mona, P.R., disaster struck: The boat began to drift out to sea, hopelessly lost in the fog. Fuel was running short, and by day six the boat ran out of gas.

Santana: After three days people started dying. These were the older people, who were 60 to 70 years old [and dehydrated in the heat]. We didn’t immediately throw their bodies overboard. We waited 24 hours to see if they were still alive. After that we threw them into the ocean. We always read a psalm. On the fifth day, when we realized we were lost, people cut the pants off the dead to make a sail.

de Jesus: As things got bad, the captain told us if we were rescued not to point him out. He told us to say he’d been picked up by a passing boat and promised to return with gas. In reality, he just told us to say that because if the authorities caught him he would be in trouble. The captain survived.

The captain tried to use his cell phone to call emergency services in Puerto Rico, to no avail. Unable to guide the boat, he could do little for the hunger of its passengers.

de Jesus: As days passed and people got hungrier, they wanted women to give breast milk. One woman was lactating. She squeezed her breasts and put milk on people’s lips to feed them. She died on the boat. After our food ran out, all we had to eat was one coconut. Someone found it floating by and shared it. My throat got so dry I felt as if someone was strangling me. To pass the time I would talk to other passengers. We talked about eating people after they died. When one person died, we were going to eat him, then someone said, “No, we can’t.”

Reports differ, but according to some accounts, a small group did resort to feeding upon the bodies of others.

Mercedes: Two women and four men began eating the ears of the dead. They had a knife and they were eating ears like they were popcorn.

Peralta: One man ate two ears. The two women, who were about 34 or 38, just drank blood. The captain told them not to do that again. You have to respect the dead.

But the living were another matter.

Santana: One group was biting each other—biting live people. They were puncturing the skin with their teeth to make them bleed. I was terrified.

Mercedes: I was resting. In my underwear. Then a woman grabbed my leg and bit me.

Peralta: Nolberto was yelling to me, “Alex, they’re biting me!” I kicked the woman away. Another time, the women began biting one of the women who were lactating. I could hear her crying out, “Leave me alone. Don’t bite me!” She was about 17. She died.

Mercedes: When they finally left her alone, her skin was purple with bruises and bite marks. Not just her nipples. Everywhere. Her face, her nose, on the neck, on the chest. It was unbelievable.

On day seven, the coast of Mona Island could be glimpsed on the horizon. For some, the temptation was too much to resist. “Five people jumped off and swam toward the island,” Peralta says. “I don’t know if they made it.”

Santana: As the days passed, I got so hungry and thirsty. I wasn’t thinking of my favorite foods. I kept thinking of grape soda.

de Jesus: The days were long, but I kept thinking about my family. We didn’t do anything to keep each other alive. Sometimes the men would take turns using boards to row. It was so hot. People started hallucinating. Some said they saw a supermarket on the water. They left the boat. Just dove into the water. We never saw them again. Three times we saw boats, but they were too far away.

Peralta: Planes were flying over and didn’t see us. Rescue boats were 500 yards from us and turned back. We were all yelling. I got up and waved a red T-shirt. There were cargo ships, and we were so close to them. I was crying because they didn’t see us.

Finally, on Aug. 10—day 13—the boat neared the shore of Matancitas, D.R. At 3p.m., Pedro Paulino, a 35-year-old fisherman, sighted the marooned yola from the beach. He alerted Navy Lt. Jesus Ulloa, who was patrolling the area. But Paulino says he was reluctant to approach a band of potential smugglers. “[Ulloa] told me, ‘Let’s go to them,’ ” Paulino says. “I said, ‘No, they will try to kill us.’ ” Adds Ulloa: “I told him I would arrest him if he didn’t come.” And so the pair took a motorboat out to meet the survivors.

Paulino: It was like they were seeing God. The women were crying like hell. They yelled out, “Are you a mirage?”

de Jesus: We saw the boat and waved our T-shirts. I knew it wasn’t like when the others saw the supermarket on the water; I could see the men on the boat. We yelled to them, “We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. Help us get to our homes.” We stayed on our boat and they pulled us to shore with a rope.

Civil defense rescue worker Ambiórix Bonilla, 23, helped evacuate the yola.

Bonilla: I carried one woman in my arms. She was around 30. She had a T-shirt on and panties. [She was so sun-burned] some of her skin had come off when she removed her pants.

Of the 39 initial survivors, eight died after coming ashore. Most were malnourished, dehydrated and dangerously blistered from sunburn. The lucky 31 heal their wounds—the physical ones, at least—and count their blessings. Santana is at home in La Pista de Yuna. Mercedes and Peralta are recovering at the home of Mercedes’s uncle, the mayor of Nagua, D.R. When his golf-ball-sized bite wound heals, Mercedes says, he may try the crossing again. Not de Jesus. She is resting at her mother’s Villa Riva home, where she intends to stay.

de Jesus: I try not to think about what happened. And I don’t ever want to leave here again. After what I’ve been through, life is not so bad here.

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