An Italian government minister born in Africa watched wordlessly as soldiers wearing face masks carried body bags containing migrants from her continent who perished when a fishing boat sank within sight of the tiny island of Lampedusa.
Divers recovered 49 more bodies after seas calmed enough to resume search operations after a two-day suspension, increasing the death toll to at least 160. About 200 others are presumed missing, trapped in the wreckage about 50 metres below the surface.
Police Major Leonardo Ricci said the operation would continue “as long as the sea is calm and there is light”.
Congolese-born integration minister Cecile Kyenge watched with the island’s mayor as the bodies were lifted from boats on to lorries to be brought to a makeshift morgue at the airport.
“There are no words in front of the dead,” Ms Kyenge told reporters later. “They are difficult moments that make us face our responsibilities.”
She said it was time for reflection “to prevent new tragedies”.
“We cannot deal with this tragedy alone, but together with Europe. We must give answers to those who flee, need protection, and come here for help.”
Earlier Ms Kyenge visited survivors at a refugee centre in Lampedusa, where she called conditions “shameful”. Most of the 155 survivors remain at the island’s overcrowded centre, many sleeping in the open. Two have were moved to hospital in Sicily.
The migrants, mostly from Eritrea, were aboard a 20-metre (65ft) fishing boat that sank early on Thursday after passengers panicked by flames fled to one side of the boat, capsizing it. Hundreds were flung into the sea, many of whom could not swim, while many were trapped in the hull.
Survivors told rescuers they were in the sea for three hours; many clung to empty water bottles to stay afloat and some were too weak to grab lifesavers thrown to them.
Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost point and just 70 miles from Tunisia, is a frequent destination for migrants trying to reach a safe haven from misery and strife in Africa and the Middle East. Tens of thousands arrive there each year seeking refugee status.
Survivors of yesterday’s tragedy have told authorities that a boat with lights had circled them but did not communicate or offer assistance. A Dutch politician has called for an investigation into reports that a boat did not help the stranded migrants. There is no evidence that people on that boat knew that the fishing vessel was in distress.
The survivors bade farewell on Saturday to the 111 deceased fellow travellers in a private ceremony.
Their coffins stood in three long lines in the makeshift mortuary at the island’s airport, each with a single rose, except for four coffins for children topped with a teddy bear.
Laura Boldrini, the speaker of Italy’s lower house who attended the ceremony along with a parliamentary delegation, said the survivors showed great dignity in their farewells, and accepted even that the coffins were nameless.
“When the asylum-seekers started to arrive, they started crying, all together, like a song,” Ms Boldrini, who used to be the UN Refugee Agency’s longtime spokeswoman for Italy, said.
“There were 150 people all together, crying, but in a very dignified way, and without asking anything of the authorities, not even to know who was in the coffins. It was such a lesson.
“All the men entered first, chanting a song. They were all crying silently. Then the women entered and you could see moments of unspeakable agony.
“A prayer was said by the local parish priest and then translated. The prayer basically said, ‘Your suffering is our suffering, your tears are our tears.’”