Voices of stranded migrants floating at sea drifted to shore, confused with seagulls' song

  • Article by: ANDREA ROSA , Associated Press
  • Updated: October 4, 2013 - 5:47 PM
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Mortuary vehicles wait outside a hangar where some of the bodies of Thursday's shipwreck are held, at the airport of Lampedusa, Italy, Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. A ship carrying African migrants towards Italy capsized off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa Thursday, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said. Authorities resumed Friday their search for bodies in the migrant shipwreck, in which officials say just 155 people survived of the 450 to 500 believed to have been on board.

Photo: Luca Bruno, Associated Press - Ap

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LAMPEDUSA, Italy — The friends were heading out on a fishing trip, when one heard voices from the sea.

Don't be silly, Vito Fiorino told him — it's only the seagulls' early morning song. Then, about 500 yards (meters) from shore, he saw heads bobbing in the water.

Dozens of Africans were floating, too weak to grab a life preserver and so slippery from gasoline that it was hard to pull them on board. Some grasped empty water bottles to stay afloat.

"It was a scene from a film, something you hope never to see in life," he told The Associated Press. "They were exhausted. When I threw the lifesaver, they had a hard time doing two strokes to reach it."

Fiorino says he and his friends were the first to reach the fiery wreck around 7 a.m. Thursday, sounding the alarm and saving 47 people before the Coast Guard and other vessels arrived to help, eventually rescuing a total of 155 people. The migrants told Fiorino they had been in the water for three hours.

The scope of the tragedy at Lampedusa — with 111 bodies recovered so far and more than 200 missing, according to survivor accounts given to U.N. officials — has prompted outpourings of grief and calls for a comprehensive EU immigration policy to deal with the tens of thousands fleeing poverty and strife in Africa and the Middle East.

On a pilgrimage to Assisi, Pope Francis called the tragedy a "day of tears" and denounced a "savage" system he said drives people to leave their homes for a better life and turns a blind eye when they die in the process.

Lampedusa, a tiny island 70 miles (113 kilometers) off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration. The island's mayor, Giusi Nicolini, said she had hoped the pope's visit there earlier this year would draw attention to the issue and lead to policy changes.

Instead, Thursday's tragedy may prove to be the biggest loss of life involving migrants undertaking the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, where such deaths are all too common and often are impossible to verify because bodies are lost far out at sea and never found.

"Here it is all within 600 meters of shore and we will have more clarity," said Laurens Jolles, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Italy.

More often, unseaworthy vessels limp to shore with many dead on board, including one recent incident with 63 bodies on a boat with seven survivors.

Remote and far from the Italian mainland, Lampedusa was ill-equipped to deal with such a staggering death toll: Four hearses arrived on an overnight ferry and caskets had to be flown in.

According to survivor accounts, the group of some 500 migrants who boarded the rickety trawler had been living together in the same building in the Libyan capital of Tripoli for three months. Almost all were from Eritrea and all had the same goal of reaching Europe, said Barbara Molinario, a UNHCR public information officer.

"They boarded the same boat and were at sea for two days. At 4 in the morning of the third day, they spotted land. They felt safe, because they thought they had made it. They saw the lights from land," she said.

But the boat's engine had died and they were trapped in a rocky bay where they couldn't land, Molinario said. A fishing boat passed, but didn't stop. It was unclear if those on board saw the migrants or were aware of their plight.

To draw attention to the distressed vessel, someone set a towel on fire. But many on board did not know the flames were intentional and panic ensued. People stampeded to one side of the boat, capsizing it and flinging hundreds of men, women and children, many of whom could not swim, into the sea. Molinario said many victims were trapped in the hull.

Efforts to reach the boat, now 130 feet below the surface, to search for more bodies were stymied by choppy waters Friday.

Reports that a boat did not help the stranded migrants prompted a Dutch lawmaker to call for an investigation. Some provisions of Italian law "effectively dissuade" boat captains from helping migrants in distress, said Socialist Tineke Strik, adding that no law should impede rescuing people whose lives are in danger.

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