At least 27 refugees, including children, died Wednesday after their wooden boat shattered in violent seas off Australia before horrified witnesses, with fears as many as 50 could have perished.
Customs officials confirmed that 42 people had survived the brutal accident but added that "tragically, initial reports are that 27 bodies have also been recovered," as the search continued into the night.
Medics have warned there could be as many as 50 deaths among the group, thought to be from Iraq and Iran.
Christmas Island residents watched aghast from the cliffs as the tragedy unfolded below, helpless to assist those dashed against the rocks and debris as bodies floated in the churning sea and rescuers tried to save the living.
"There were children in the water. There was one very small child in a life jacket floating face down for a very long time... clearly dead," said local shop owner Simon Prince.
"It's something I'm not going to forget very quickly."
Woken near dawn by the screams of victims Prince said locals gathered life jackets and rushed to the sheer limestone cliffs to offer help, but strong winds blew the flotation devices back onshore.
The terrified group drifted for about an hour after losing engine power and only one man managed an "incredible leap" to safety before the surging waves smashed the rickety vessel apart on the rocks, Prince said.
Witnesses said the boat was crowded with passengers, mostly families, and a number were lying listless and ill on the deck as it splintered.
"Once it hit the rocks it shattered into pieces," said local councilor Kamar Ismail. "I heard people screaming for help, we just said to them 'We can't, we can't do much', we could throw them life jackets, that's all."
Prince said people were "crushed against jagged limestone" as navy rescuers battled towering swells to reach them in inflatable dinghies, while locals made a human chain and tried to cast ropes and life preservers down.
"The tragedy continued for some time and we witnessed people actually drowning," said another witness Phillip Stewart.
Local electrician Michael Foster said most of the group were right next to the rocks and "you could hear the women screaming, it was trying times for people trying to help them".
The Flying Doctors dispatched a medical jet to pick up three critically wounded people -- two men with head wounds and a woman with abdominal injuries.
"We understand, and it's not confirmed, that there are about 50 dead and 33 walking wounded," said Flying Doctors' spokeswoman Lesleigh Green.
"It's a real sort of life-saving mission," she added.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard cancelled her vacation following the incident and issued a short statement to say it would be "some time before there is a full picture of what has happened".
"The government's focus and absolute priority now is on rescue, recovery and treatment of those injured," she said.
Refugee advocates said most of the group were believed to be from Iraq and Iran.
The UNHCR said it was a "tragic reminder of the danger faced by people fleeing persecution and human rights violations in their home countries, and the desperate measures they will resort to in search of safety".
"It also reinforces the need for the international community to redouble its efforts... to prevent the need for vulnerable individuals to undertake these perilous journeys by boat," the UN refugee agency said.
Thousands of asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have made their way to Australia this year, often on leaky boats from Indonesia.
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