SYDNEY — A wooden boat packed with dozens of asylum seekers smashed apart on jagged rocks in heavy seas off an Australian island Wednesday, flinging screaming women and children into churning whitewater and sending many people to their deaths.
Christmas Island residents on cliffs above watched in helpless horror as the boat broke apart with a crack, dumping passengers into monstrous waves that pounded them against the rocks. Rescue efforts were under way and officials said it was not immediately clear how many people were dead.
"While many details about this tragedy are still unconfirmed, I understand there have been a large number of fatalities and numerous injuries to those aboard the vessel, including women and children," Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said in a statement.
At least 30 people were injured, three critically, in the accident, said Joeley Pettit-Scott, a spokeswoman for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which has sent teams of doctors to the island. Of the critical patients, two men have head injuries and one woman has blunt abdominal trauma, she said.