SYDNEY — Several asylum seekers were killed when their boat crashed into cliffside rocks and sank in heavy seas at an island off Australia’s coast today, Australia’s acting prime minister said. Witnesses described seeing dead bodies — including children — floating in the water.
Rescue efforts were underway and officials said it was not immediately clear how many people were dead. The boat crashed into jagged rocks below a cliff on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean where refugee hopefuls are housed in a detention center.
“A people-smuggler’s boat has crashed into the rocks,’’ Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said. “A number of people have been rescued but sadly, some bodies have been retrieved.’’
A series of photographs taken at the scene and published on The West Australian newspaper’s website show the wooden boat crashing into the rocks and breaking apart. The images also show people floating in the water among the wreckage. The boat was about 20 to 30 feet long, with a cabin covered by a sheet of fabric or plastic.
Simon Prince, who lives next to the cliff where the boat crashed, said he was awakened by what he thought were cheers. He walked outside to the cliff and instead heard cries for help from a boat just offshore.
“The engine had failed,’’ Prince said.
Prince said the boat, carrying about 50 people, tossed for an hour before it finally hit the rocks at the base of the cliff.
“When the boat hit the cliff there was a sickening crack. All the people on board rushed to the land side, which is the worst thing they could do, but I don’t think anybody could swim. I think there were about two lifeboats on board this thing,’’ Prince said.
“It was just horrible.’’
Prince, who owns a dive shop, and other neighbors began hurling life jackets into the water, 50 or 60 of them. But many just floated away.
Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries who want to start a new life. In recent years, many have come from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. Generally, they first fly to Indonesia and then head for Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats.