Three hundred people were feared dead after a boat carrying up to 500 African asylum seekers caught fire and sank off Italian shores in the worst recent refugee disaster in the Mediterranean.
Rescuers and local fishermen were overcome with emotion as they spoke of chaotic early morning scenes in the water off the Italian island of Lampedusa, with “a sea of heads” as desperate refugees waved their arms and screamed.
There were also stories of survival such as a young Eritrean woman thought dead and laid out with other corpses before medical personnel realised she was still breathing and revived her.
A UN official blamed a repressive policy towards illegal immigrants for the tragedy, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he hoped the disaster would be a “spur to action” to protecting migrants’ rights, and improving the public perception of immigrants.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano initially reported “93 victims, including three children and two pregnant women”, but rescue divers later said they had identified at least 40 more bodies in and around the sunken wreck.
With only 150 survivors plucked from the water more than 12 hours after the disaster, there were fears that the final toll could rise further to 300 or more people.
“Seeing the bodies of the children was a tragedy. We have run out of coffins,” said Pietro Bartolo, a doctor. “In many years of work here, I have never seen anything like this,” he said.
Lampedusa is one of the main entry points into the European Union for asylum-seekers crossing from north Africa or the eastern Mediterranean.
Migreurop, a network of immigration charities, estimates 17,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe in the past 20 years, crossing on rickety fishing boats or dinghies.
Survivors said they were from Eritrea and Somalia and had left from the Libyan port of Misrata.
They told rescuers they set fire to a blanket on the boat to attract the attention of coastguards after their vessel began taking on water and passing fishing boats ignored them.
The fire spread quickly, sowing panic on board, which caused the boat to flip over and sink, as people jumped into the sea to save themselves.
Raffaele Colapinto, a local fisherman who was one of the first on the scene, said: “We saw a sea of heads. We took as many as we could on board.”
Visibly shaken survivors in thermal blankets — many of them bare-chested — were seen on the dock and being treated at the hospital where personnel said many had swallowed gasoline and sea water.
‘A European tragedy’
The bodies were being taken to a hangar at the local airport because there was no more room in the morgue on the remote island, which has a population of around 6,000 people.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the incident “an immense tragedy” and the government declared a national day of mourning on Friday and a minute of silence to be held in all schools.
Alfano called for more assistance from the European Union to deal with the sharp increase in refugee arrivals, calling it “a European tragedy”.
About 25,000 people have landed on Italian shores so far this year — more than three times the number for the whole of 2012, although the figure for 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts in north Africa was higher at around 50,000.
In the last major disaster in June 2011, between 200 and 270 immigrants fleeing Libya are believed to have died off the coast of Tunisia.
Many of the arrivals have been on Lampedusa, and most of them have been Eritreans, Somalis and Syrians.
“We no longer have any space for the living or the dead,” local mayor Giusi Nicolini said, explaining the cemetery and the refugee centre were full.
Letta “should come here and count the bodies”, said the mayor, who often accuses the national government of failing to help the island.
The EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem called on EU countries to do more to take in refugees, which she said would help reduce the number of perilous Mediterranean crossings.
Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July to plead for more attention to be paid to the plight of refugees, called the disaster “shameful” and urged action to prevent more deaths.
For Francois Crepeau, the UN’s special rapporteur on migrants’ rights, the “criminalisation of irregular immigration” had played a role in the disaster.
“Treating irregular migrants only by repressive measures would create these tragedies,” he said, adding that by closing their borders, European countries are only giving more power to human traffickers.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf extended the “deepest sympathies” of the United States and called on “the international community to work to prevent such catastrophes to these vulnerable migrants”.