Bungled manoeuvre by ship's navigator sealed fates of 850 terrified migrants
A bungled manoeuvre by the man at the wheel of a people-smuggling trawler sealed the fate of 850 desperate migrants crammed inside, survivors of the deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea have said.
A merchant ship with a crew experienced at plucking migrants from unseaworthy smuggler's boats arrived off the coast of Libya soon after a distress call went out. But instead of easing alongside, the trawler's navigator rammed the vessel and relief gave way to panic.
Terrified migrants rushed to one side, the trawler seized and capsized and what might have been another rescue in a period of unprecedented migrant crossings instead turned into a horrifying statistic.
The accounts of traumatised survivors who arrived in the Sicilian port of Catania 48 hours after the disaster offered new details of the tragedy, corroborating a death toll of at least 800, making the capsizing "the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean that we have ever recorded", the United Nations refugee agency said.
Just 28 migrants, all men and boys in their teens, survived. Despite the enormous toll, only 24 bodies were recovered - frequently the case when ships sink on the high seas, especially when most passengers are locked below deck, as was the case on Saturday night.
Aid agencies were quick to issue another warning, saying that at the current pace, 2015 is set to be the deadliest year on record for migrants making the perilous crossing as they flee war, repression and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. In April alone, 1,300 have died.
The International Organisation for Migration said the toll for the year could top 30,000 - nearly 10 times the 2014 total of 3,279, itself a record.
Italian ships have rescued more than 10,000 people over the past two weeks, an unprecedented number for such a short period, authorities say.
Seamen who helped save survivors of the weekend capsizing told tales of near-miraculous rescue.
Among the ships to arrive in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday was the coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti, which sent medics in two dinghies. By then, the trawler had already disappeared into the sea.
"We found, literally, a floating cemetery. Bodies were everywhere. With the dinghies we had to literally slalom among the corpses," said Enrico Vitello, a 22-year-old medic from the Order of Malta.
Among the survivors were two alleged smugglers, who were detained for investigation of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. The Tunisian navigator, identified as Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, could also face multiple counts of manslaughter and causing a shipwreck - the same charges the captain of the capsized Concordia luxury cruise liner was convicted of earlier this year.
Most on board the trawler were unable to escape because they were locked below deck on its lower two levels. Hundreds more were squeezed on the upper deck.
"The survivors said that the person who was steering the boat, their smuggler, was navigating badly, and he did a bad move that made it crash against the bigger ship," UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said in Sicily.
"This obviously created a problem because the people on the lower decks couldn't get out and the boat destabilised until it capsized."
She praised the merchant ship, the King Jacob, for its response, noting it had participated in previous rescues. These included saving about 100 migrants, including children and pregnant women, in the Strait of Sicily just five days earlier.
The weekend deaths have put the European Union on an emergency footing to combat the crisis, with Italy demanding that it not be left alone to shoulder the burden of rescues and that the EU focus on preventing boats from leaving Libya.
Combating the traffickers by arresting ringleaders and destroying their boats has emerged as the centrepiece of a 10-point proposal to be discussed at an emergency EU summit tomorrow in Brussels.
Italy has arrested more than 1,000 smugglers, most of them boat navigators, not the masterminds of the smuggling operations, and says it needs help.
The Bruno Gregoretti brought the 24 bodies to Malta for burial on Monday, before continuing to Sicily with 27 of the survivors. One, a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, was flown to Catania and gave authorities the first hint of the tragedy's scale.
The remaining survivors were brought Tuesday to a migrant holding centre in Catania and were "very tired, very shocked, silent", according to Flavio Di Giacomo of the IOM.
Read more: More than 120 migrants reach Greek shores
For most, the ordeal began well before stepping aboard the doomed boat. They included 350 Eritreans, many of them young men fleeing forced conscription, as well as people from war-torn Syria and Somalia, in addition to migrants from Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.
Prosecutors said some had been held for as long as 30 days on a farm near where the boat was docked before being transported in groups of about 30 in trucks to the embarking point.
"In one instance, one of the migrants was allegedly struck with a club because he stepped away" to go to the bathroom, they said in a statement.
Save the Children said witness statements indicated that 60 children and adolescents were on board the ship, only four of whom survived. It said if current trends continued, 2,500 children could die this year, calling on European leaders to restart rescue operations.