Australian authorities say more than two dozen people are dead after a boat filled with suspected asylum seekers broke up on the rugged shores of a remote island Wednesday.
Customs officials say 42 people have been rescued and another 27 bodies have been recovered following the tragedy at Christmas Island, located several thousand kilometers northwest of Australia in the Indian Ocean.
Officials originally estimated that about 70 people were on the wooden boat, which was smashed against jagged rocks by heavy seas.
Dr. Stephen Langford, a spokesman with Australia's Royal Flying Doctor service, told VOA that medical teams have been dispatched to help three survivors who were seriously injured.
Residents on Christmas Island say they tried to throw life vests from the shore as the passengers struggled in the water. Several described their horror at watching drowning children.
Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan described the vessel as a "people smuggler's boat" during a press conference in Canberra early Wednesday. Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced she was cutting short her holiday to return to Canberra and deal with the tragedy.
It was not immediately clear where the boat's passengers were coming from or what their nationalities were.
Australia is a major destination for people fleeing impoverished, war-torn countries in Asia. Christmas Island is home to the country's main refugee detention center.