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 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 said. “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 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 a boat with only seven survivors amid 63 bodies.
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.
The boat’s engine died and they were trapped in a rocky bay where they couldn’t land, Molinario said.
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, into the sea.