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.
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 councillor 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."
"The tragedy continued for some time and we witnessed people actually drowning," said another witness Phillip Stewart.