At least 27 people have been killed when a wooden boat packed with around 70 asylum seekers smashed apart on jagged rocks in heavy seas off an Australian island, flinging screaming women and children into churning whitewater.
Christmas Island residents on a cliff above watched in horror as the boat broke apart, dumping passengers into monstrous waves that pounded them against the rocks.
The Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement that 27 bodies had been recovered from the water. Forty-one survivors were plucked from the seas, and one person made it to shore.
Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said the vessel was a people smuggler's boat, but it was not clear how many people were on board or where they were from. "A number of people have been rescued but sadly, some bodies have been retrieved," Mr Swan said.
Christmas Island is a remote Australian territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and a frequent target of refugee hopefuls, who are housed in a detention centre there. Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan who want to start a new life.
Photos and videos taken by witnesses at the scene show the wooden boat crashing into the rocks and breaking apart. The images also show people floating in the water amid 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 woken early on Wednesday 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," Mr Prince said. "They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty."
He said the boat tossed for an hour before it finally hit the rocks at the base of the cliff.