Lampedusa disaster: Bad weather delays rescue operation as hopes fade for victims of migrant boat tragedy off Italian island

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

Rome

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future