Hundreds of women and children perished 'like rats in a cage' on boat
Fishermen and coast guards who raced to the scene of the migrant disaster in the Mediterranean have described their dismay at what they found, as the Italian prosecutor leading the investigation confirmed that most of those on board were forcibly locked in to the hold of the boat.
The 70-ft long boat, which set out from the coast of Libya, capsized in the early hours of Sunday with the loss of up to 950 people, in a tragedy that campaigners said must galvanise Europe into action.
The boat had three levels - the hold, a second level, and the upper deck. Only those on the upper level had any chance of surviving when the vessel capsized, apparently after migrants rushed to one side of the ship when they saw a passing Portuguese merchant ship they believed would rescue them.
The asylum seekers are believed to have included 200 women and dozens of children. "A few hundred were forced into the hold, the lowest level. They were locked in and prevented from coming out," said Giovanni Salvi, a prosecutor in Catania, who is leading the criminal investigation.
Hundreds more were locked into the second level, while the remainder were on the upper deck, probably after paying more money to the smugglers.
One of the 28 survivors of the disaster, a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, told Italian officials that as many as 950 people may have been on board, though the Italian Coast Guard believes it more likely that the vessel was carrying 700 migrants.
"There were also 200 women and 50 children with us. Many were shut in the hold. They died like rats in a cage," the Bangladeshi man was reported as saying by 'La Sicilia'. He also told 'La Repubblica': "The traffickers closed the portholes to stop them from coming out and they have finished at the bottom of the sea." The man was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Catania where he is being treated for an unspecified infectious disease, unrelated to the trauma he suffered during the sinking.
The other 27 survivors were on their way last night to Catania from Malta, where an Italian Coast Guard ship had earlier docked with the bodies of 24 migrants who drowned in the disaster.
Rescuers said they had found the survivors desperately struggling to stay afloat, surrounded by dead bodies and yelling for help.
"They were at the very limit of their strength. They shouted with their last reserves because they heard the sound of our engines. They wouldn't have lasted much longer," said a coast guard official.
"I saw children's shoes, clothing, backpacks floating in the water," Vincenzo Bonomo, the captain of a fishing boat, said. "Every time we saw a shoe or a bag, any sign of life, we thought we may have found a survivor. But every time we were disappointed. It was heart-breaking."
Even before the tiny number of survivors reached the safety of Italian soil, the Mediterranean was the scene of fresh tragedies.
A boat carrying more than 90 migrants sank close to the coast of Rhodes. At least three people, including a small child, died when the boat ran aground off the rocks of the Aegean island on a crossing from the Turkish coast. Greek rescue workers and local people dragged survivors from the sea, some of them clinging desperately to bits of debris from the boat after it broke up.
Italy and Malta, already hard-pressed by Sunday's sinking, were racing to the aid of two more migrant boats in difficulty off the Libyan coast, with a total of 400 people on board.
"It looks like there will be more tragedies before the survivors of Sunday's disaster have even arrived in Sicily," Gemma Parkin, from Save the Children, said. "If this doesn't galvanise international action then we'd be extremely worried about people's compassion and humanity."
Matteo Renzi, Italy's prime minister, compared the desperate plight of the tens of thousands of people trying to cross the Mediterranean with the condition of slaves transported across the Atlantic from the Americas.
"When we say we are in the presence of slavery we are not using the word just for effect," he said.
"Three or four centuries ago, unscrupulous men traded in human lives... exactly the same thing is happening now."
Migrants and refugees who have survived the journey to Italy have described horrific conditions on board leaky boats and barely seaworthy dinghies with no food or water, no lavatories and a "class system" in which more affluent refugees from countries such as Syria secure a place on the deck while poorer Africans are forced into the hold.
Mohamed, a 37-year-old Syrian architect who fled his country's civil war, lost his wife, his three-year-old daughter and five other members of his family when the boat he was travelling on capsized and sank in October 2013.
"I don't even have graves to cry over. I still can't sleep at night," said Mohamed, who was granted asylum status in Sweden. (© Daily Telegraph, London)