With 111 bodies recovered from the waters off the Italian island of Lampedusa after a boat carrying 500 African migrants capsized, search and rescue teams had to abandon their efforts amid poor weather conditions.
The scale of the tragedy was evident when a ferry delivered 140 more coffins to the little island as preparations were made for mass funerals at five different sites in Agrigento on the Sicilian mainland. More than 350 people are now feared dead.
Coast Guard captain Floriana Segreto, said: “In total among the living and the dead when have accounted for 266 people. But our work is not finished.” Emergency services said that half of those confirmed dead so far were women.
The disaster occurred early on Thursday morning when a 20m boat carrying migrants mainly from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana got into difficulty less than a mile from the shore of Lampedusa. Someone on board set light to a piece of fabric to attract the attention of nearby ships, but the flames spread, forcing the desperate refugees into the sea.
Vito Fiorino, a Lampedusa resident, 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. He told the Associated Press that some of the survivors told him they had been fighting to stay alive for three hours and did not have the strength to grab the life-ring he threw to them. “It was a scene from a film, something you hope never to see in life,” he said.
Mr Fiorino said he alerted the Italian Coast Guard and other boats when he came upon desperate migrants just before 7am local time on Thursday. He said he and his friends lifted 47 people up onto his 10m (32ft) boat.
Veronica Lentini, a field officer for the International Organisation for Migration, said many of the migrants were trapped inside the boat when it began sinking. Late on Thursday Coast Guard divers found the wreck on the sea floor, 40m below the surface, with bodies scattered around it.
It emerged today that dozens of survivors of the disaster had slept out in the open because the centre designated to accommodate migrants was full. Other survivors, including 40 children and three women, were being treated in a local hospital. Health workers told Agence France-Presse news agency that some had swallowed spilled fuel from the boat.
Four of the more serious cases were being treated in a bigger hospital in Palermo in Sicily, including a young Eritrean woman who was said by doctors to have suffered a miscarriage.
Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than it is to the Italian mainland, has been at the centre of wave after wave of illegal immigration. There are hundreds of incidents every year in which poor migrants, often fleeing conflict and repression, perish during the crossing from North African to Europe. Most of them pay their life savings – often thousands of pounds – to unscrupulous traffickers for passage on small, ill-equipped vessels.
Pope Francis said Friday was a “day of tears” for those who lost their lives, and denounced the “savage” system that drives people to leave their homes for a better life, yet doesn’t care if they die in the process.
Italy’s interior minister Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who flew to the island on Thursday, sought to downplay inferences that Italy was partially responsible for the disaster.
He told the Italian parliament more than 30,000 migrants had already been rescued this year in waters off Italy, stretching the country’s ability to help new migrants to the limit.
He called for more action and financial support from the rest of Europe to deal with the crisis.
A special mass for the victims was held on Lampedusa today, followed by a torchlight procession through the streets of the island’s little port.
Pastor of Lampedusa, Don Stefano Nastasi, said: “Whoever has responsibility for these events – the Italian government or the European Union – has to explain themselves. There has been too much silence surrounding this.”
“After these deaths, we are expecting something to change. Things cannot stay the same,” the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, told reporters.
“The future of Lampedusa is directly linked to policies on immigration and asylum,” she said.