Mediterranean migrant crisis: Hundreds of survivors who watched loved ones drown when overloaded vessel capsized finally reach Italy

Commander of rescue ship says 'it was incredible how quickly the vessel went down'

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Hundreds of migrant men, women and children who watched their loved ones drown when their boat capsized have finally reached safety in Italy.

Crowded on two decks of an Irish navy ship, they watched the approaching dock in Palermo packed with aid workers and journalists with relief.

The first passenger to be brought on to dry land was a tiny baby, carried by a medic as its mother followed closely behind down the gangplank.

Minutes later, a young girl was carried off, apparently conscious in a doctor's arms, flopping like a rag doll.

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Migrants hang onto a flotation device during a rescue operation 10.5 miles (16 km) off the coast of Libya August 6, 2015 (Reuters)

She was followed by around a dozen more children. Some appeared disorientated and withdrawn, while others waved cheerfully to assembled journalists.

Medical workers from the Italian Red Cross could be seen carrying out medical screening on the ship, clad in protective white plastic suits with their names scribbled on in marker pens.

The most injured people were taken off the ship after the children, including two men who had to be carried in wheelchairs and others with blood seeping from bandaged wounds.

The rescue ship had been docked for two hours before the bodies started being brought off.

Italian undertakers arrived with vans full of plain wooden coffins, which were carried on board as families of the dead returned to the boat to identify their loved ones.

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A migrant child being rescued from a capsized boat off the coast of Libya on Wednesday

The vast crowd on the dock quietened as the first body was removed minutes later.

Despite the immense suffering of those brought ashore, they were the lucky ones.

Italian authorities estimate more than 600 people were packed on the ship launched from Libya. Only 367 reached the shore.

Commander Ken Minehane said that his crew on the Le Niamh and other vessels joining the rescue pulled 25 bodies from the water, including three children.

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Migrants on board an overloaded wooden boat are rescued some 10.5 miles (16 km) off the coast of Libya August 6, 2015. (Reuters)

Searches continue at sea for more than 200 missing passengers, who are all feared dead.

The migrant ship was still afloat when the Irish ship answered its call of distress.

Cmdr Minehane told The Independent it sent several smaller boats to approach the stricken craft from the rear.

“They approached the vessel from the stern in order to try and prevent people rushing from one side to the other but people still started moving from one side of the other trying to see where the boats were,” he said.

“As it moved to one side and started to tilt, they all started moving to the other side but all of them going in the same direction was too much and the vessel started to take on water, and capsized.

“It was all over in a matter of 30 seconds. It was incredible how quickly it went down, it just shows how overloaded the vessel was and how unseaworthy she was.”

Irish sailors inflated four life rafts and threw hundreds of life jackets to the struggling migrants in the water, pulling as many of them to safety as they could.

But many of the passengers, believed to be dominantly Syrians, Palestinians and Bangladeshis, were unable to swim.

“I would imagine that the vast majority of them died from the time the boat capsized to the time we could get them to the ship,“ Cmdr Minehane said.

When asked who caused the disaster, his answer was clear.

“The only people who caused the sinking are the smugglers who overloaded this vessel in the first place,” he said, adding that 50 passengers was its “absolute maximum” for safety.

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