LAMPEDUSA, Italy — Survivors of a fiery shipwreck that killed more than 100 African migrants clung to empty water bottles to keep themselves from drowning and were coated in gasoline, an Italian fisherman said Friday.
Lampedusa resident Vito Fiorino said he was the first to come across dozens of migrants scattered in the Mediterranean Sea while he was on an early morning fishing expedition.
At first he thought their weak cries were that of seagulls. Then he saw what terrible shape they were in, coated with gasoline from the smugglers’ boat, barely clothed or wearing rags. Some didn’t have the strength to grab the lifesaving ring thrown to them. Once on board, they told him they had been fighting to stay alive for three hours.
“It was a scene from a film, something you hope never to see in life,” he told The Associated Press.
Fiorino said he alerted the Italian coast guard and other boats when he came upon desperate migrants just before 7 a.m. Thursday. He and his friends lifted 47 people up onto his 10-meter (32-foot) boat.
Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island 70 miles (113 kilometers) off Tunisia, is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.
On Friday, Italian coast guard boats carrying divers headed out from Lampedusa to search for more bodies, but choppy waters hampered their efforts.
The scope of the tragedy at Lampedusa – with 111 bodies recovered so far, 155 people rescued and up to an estimated 250 still missing, according to officials – has prompted outpourings of grief. Italian officials demanded a comprehensive European Union immigration policy to deal with the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and strife in Africa and the Middle East.
Pope Francis called Friday a “day of tears,” denouncing the “savage” system that he said drives people to leave their homes for a better life, yet doesn’t care when they die in the process.
Dutch lawmaker Tineke Strik, who has reported on migrant deaths on the Mediterranean, urged Italy to investigate claims that some fishing boats or other vessels had ignored calls for help from the doomed boat. Some survivors told U.N. workers that a fishing boat had passed them but it was not clear if the boat saw the migrants, said Barbara Molinario of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Strik, in comments reported Friday by the Parliamentary Council of Europe, acknowledged that some provisions of Italian law “effectively dissuade” boat captains from helping migrants in distress. She insisted no law should impede rescuing people whose lives are in danger.
Fiorino, the Italian fisherman, told The Associated Press he saw no signs of any bad behavior from people in boats.
The 66-foot (20-meter) smuggler’s boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia when it caught fire early Thursday near the Lampedusa port, authorities said. The fire panicked those on board the rickety boat. They stampeded to one side, flipping it over, and hundreds of men, women and children, many of whom could not swim, were flung into the sea.
“The migrants told us there were about 500 of them,” Veronica Lentini, a field officer for the International Organization for Migration, told reporters. “The boat capsized and they fell in the water, but many of them were trapped inside the boat.”
Molinario said authorities were expecting the number of missing to be around 250, based on survivor accounts.
Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the region were taking part in the search operations. Coast guard divers found the wreck late Thursday on the sea floor, 130 feet (40 meters) below the surface, with bodies scattered around it.
“Today the operations we plan to do are focused on searching inside the ship where bodies are trapped,” Capt. Filippo Marini, a coast guard spokesman, told reporters Friday. “We don’t have the number of the bodies; we don’t know the real number yet.”
Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens into Lampedusa port on Thursday, lining them up under multicolored tarps on the docks.
The UNHCR believes this is likely to be the biggest such tragedy on record involving migrants in the Mediterranean. But the agency said there were many other incidents of boats arriving with many dead – one with 63 dead on board and seven survivors, and others in which survivors arrive saying dozens have died at sea, but can’t be verified because the bodies are never found.
“Here it is all within 600 meters (650 yards) of shore and we will have more clarity,” said Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR representative in Italy.
Thousands make the perilous crossing each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests. Each year hundreds die in the crossing.
Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Milan.