Choppy waters yesterday hampered the search by Italian divers for hundreds of migrants missing after their ship capsized off the southern island of Lampedusa.
The scope of the tragedy prompted outpourings of grief and demands for a comprehensive European Union immigration policy to deal with the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and strife in Africa and the Middle East.
By yesterday afternoon, 111 bodies had been recovered and another 155 people had been rescued, but an estimated 250 were still missing.
Pope Francis called yesterday a “day of tears,” denouncing the “savage” system that he said drives people to leave their homes for a better life, yet doesn’t care when they die in the process.
The rickety 66ft (20m) smuggler’s boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, when it caught fire early on Thursday near the port of Lampedusa
The fire panicked those on board. They rushed to one side, flipping it over, and hundreds of men, women and children, many of whom could not swim, were flung into the Mediterranean.
“The migrants told us there were about 500 of them,” Veronica Lentini, a field officer for the International Organisation for Migration, told reporters. “The boat capsized and they fell in the water, but many of them were trapped inside the boat.”
Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the region have taken part in the search and rescue operations. Coast guard divers found the wreck on the sea floor, 130ft (40m) below the surface, with bodies scattered around it.
Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens into Lampedusa, lining them up under multicoloured tarpaulins on the docks.
“The operations we plan to do are focused on searching inside the ship where bodies are trapped,” Captain Filippo Marini, a coast guard spokesman, said early yesterday. “We don’t have the number of the bodies; we don’t know the real number yet.”
Barbara Molinario of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Lampedusa said authorities expected the missing to number about 250, according to survivors’ accounts.
The sinking was one of the deadliest accidents affecting the perilous crossing that thousands make each year, seeking new lives in the EU as Lampedusa is just 70 miles from Tunisia.
Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests.
Hundreds of migrants reach Italy’s shores every day, particularly during the summer, when seas are usually calmer.
A day of mourning was declared, with flags flying at half-mast and a minute of silence observed in all Italian schools.
Pope Francis added that he wanted to use abandoned Catholic monasteries and convents to house refugees.
Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini – who wept at the scene of so many bodies – said: “After these deaths, we are expecting something to change. Things cannot stay the same.”