The captain of the ship that capsized killing up to 900 migrants on Sunday has been charged with reckless multiple homicide for allegedly causing their deaths.
Hundreds who drowned were locked below the deck and unable to escape when the ship started filling with water, survivors said.
The captain has been charged with killing the migrants by overloading the vessel and accidentally ramming it into a Portugese container ship trying to take the passengers to safety.
The captain and a crew member were among only 28 survivors rescued out of the estimated 950 people on board the 66 foot former fishing trawler.
Italian prosecutors are holding the Tunisan captain, 27-year-old Mohammed Ali Malek, on charges of “reckless homicide and causing a shipwreck”, while both he and his Syrian crew mate, Mahmud Bikhit, 25, are also accused of immigration offences.
Officials in Sicily put the capsizing down to the steering of the boat into a Portuguese-flagged cargo ship that had come to its rescue and the panicked movement of passengers after the collision.
Catania prosecutor Giovanni Salvi stressed that none of the Portugese crew were under investigation and that their attempts to help the ship in distress “in no way contributed to the deadly event”.
Carlotta Sami, from the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at least 800 people from countries including Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Senegal, were believed to have died.
“They left on Saturday morning around eight o'clock in the morning from Tripoli, and they started to have problems, and they were approached by merchant vessels during the night around 10 o'clock,” she said, according to the BBC.
She added that at some point "the little boat lost its balance, and people started to move around.
"Those that were down wanted to come up and vice-versa, and many people fell into the water, and then the boat capsized".
Survivors described how passengers had been kept on three levels on the boat, with some locked below the deck.
A 32-year-old Bangladeshi man, the first survivor to arrive in Sicily, said: “I and the others managed to survive because we were outside, but many of the others remained prisoners in the hold of the boat because the traffickers had locked them in and they finished at the bottom of the sea.”
The rescued migrants were “very tired, very shocked, silent” when they arrived at a respite centre, according to Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organisation for Migration.
Fishing boats and commercial vessels joined the hunt for survivors yesterday but described only harrowing scenes in the Mediterranean.
Vincenzo Bonomo said he had searched in vain and found only belongings of the dead, which included dozens of children.
He said: “We thought we had seen it all and instead .... I saw kids’ shoes, jackets, I saw life jackets, I saw a notebook and a backpack and that little boy face down in a huge oil slick that marked the grave of so many of those poor people. But I could not find even one survivor. Not one.”
The disaster came amid calls for action over rising numbers of deaths during voyages to Italy that have killed an estimated 1,700 people in the last week alone.
The crisis has sparked an emergency summit by European Union leaders to crack down on human trafficking and aid Italy’s rescue missions.
Desperate migrants are charged up to £1,200 for the hellish crossing, often in unsafe and overcrowded vessels where they face starvation and even murder by being shot or pushed overboard.
Additional reporting by AP
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies