27 Asylum Seekers Die As Boat Sinks Off Australia

A wooden boat packed with asylum seekers smashed against jagged rocks in a storm off an Australian island Wednesday, flinging terrified occupants into churning waters and killing at least 27 people.

Christmas Island residents on a cliff above watched in horror as the boat — carrying about 70 people — broke apart with a crack, dumping screaming men, women and children into monstrous waves that pounded them against the rocks.

""It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful,"" island resident Simon Prince told The Associated Press.

Officials gave no immediate word on the nationality of the victims. The Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement Wednesday that 27 bodies had been recovered from the water. Forty-one survivors were plucked from the seas, and one person made it to shore.

""The rescue is being conducted in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions,"" the customs department said. ""The search and rescue situation is ongoing."" Women and children were among the dead, Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said in a statement.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service sent doctors to the island to treat 30 injured victims, said Joeley Pettit-Scott, the group's spokeswoman. Three patients were critically injured, two men with head injuries and one woman with blunt abdominal trauma, she said.

Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said the vessel was a people smuggler's boat, but it was not clear where the passengers were from.

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 center there. Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan who want to start a new life. "