LAMPEDUSA, Italy: Italian coast guard boats carrying divers headed out from the southern island of Lampedusa Friday but choppy waters hampered their search for the hundreds of migrants that are still missing in a nearby shipwreck.
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 – prompted outpourings of grief and demands for 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 drives people to leave their homes for a better life, yet doesn’t care when they die in the process.
The 20-meter smuggler’s boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, when it caught fire early Thursday near the Lampedusa port, Italian 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 Mediterranean 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.”
Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the entire region have taken part in the search and rescue operations. Coast guard divers late Thursday found the wreck on the sea floor, 40 meters below the surface, with bodies scattered around it.
Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens into Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicolored tarps on the docks.
“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 early Friday. “We don’t have the number of the bodies; we don’t know the real number yet.”
Barbara Molinario of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Lampedusa said authorities were expecting the number of missing to rise to around 250, based on survivor accounts.
Thursday’s sinking was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous crossing that thousands make 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.
Hundreds of migrants reach Italy’s shores every day, particularly during the summer, when the seas are usually calmer.
Lampedusa, 113 kilometers off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.