ROME: As many as 300 people were feared drowned Thursday after a boat carrying up to 500 African asylum seekers caught fire and sank off Italy’s shores in one of the worst such disasters in the Mediterranean.
“There are 93 victims, including three children and two pregnant women,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who flew to the remote island of Lampedusa near where the tragedy happened.
Rescue divers later said they had identified at least 40 more bodies in and around the sunken wreck at a depth of around 40 meters, just a few hundred meters from the shore.
One woman initially thought dead and brought back to the port was revived by medical personnel on the dock.
There were fears that the final toll could rise further to 300 or more people since rescuers said that only 151 survivors had been plucked from the water more than 11 hours after the disaster.
“Seeing the bodies of the children was a tragedy. We have run out of coffins,” said Pietro Bartolo, a doctor.
“In many years of work here, I have never seen anything like this,” he said.
Lampedusa is one of the main entry points into the European Union for asylum seekers crossing from Africa or the eastern Mediterranean.
The U.N. estimates some 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe since the late 1990s, crossing on rickety fishing boats or dinghies.
Survivors said they were from Eritrea and Somalia and had left from the Libyan port of Misrata.
“We received the first alert at 7 a.m. [0500 GMT] when a boat reported people in the water,” a spokesman for the coast guard told AFP.
Antonio Candela, a local emergency medical worker, said: “The first assistance was provided by people on pleasure boats who heard the screams.”
The migrants told rescuers they set fire to a blanket on the boat to attract the coast guard’s attention after their vessel began taking on water.
The fire spread quickly, sowing panic on board which caused the boat to flip over and sink, as desperate passengers jumped into the water.
Raffaele Colapinto, a local fisherman who was one the first on the scene, said: “We saw a sea of heads. We started taking them on board.
“It was hard because they were covered in gasoline and they were slippery. It took about half an hour to drag each one onto our boat,” he said.
Visibly shaken survivors in thermal blankets – many of them bare-chested – were seen stepping on the dock as an emergency worker broke down in tears in images shown on Italian television.
The bodies were being taken to a hangar at the local airport because there was no more room in the local morgue on the remote island, which has a population of around 6,000 people.
Italian premier Enrico Letta called the incident “an immense tragedy” and the government has declared a national day of mourning on Friday.
Alfano called for more assistance from the European Union to deal with the sharp increase in refugee arrivals, calling it “a European tragedy.”
Some 25,000 people have landed on Italian shores so far this year – over three times the number for the whole of 2012, although the figure for 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa was around 50,000.
In the last major disaster in June 2011, between 200 and 270 immigrants fleeing Libya are believed to have died off the coast of Tunisia.
Many of the arrivals have been on Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. Most of them have been Eritreans, Somalis and Syrians.
The EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem called on EU countries to do more to take in refugees, an undertaking she said would help reduce the number of perilous Mediterranean crossings.
She also said that Eurosur, a new European system to coordinate maritime search and rescue operations, would be up and running by December.
Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July to plead for more attention to the plight of refugees, called the disaster “shameful.”
“Let us join forces so these tragedies never happen again. Only decisive cooperation can help prevent them.”