Coffins, flowers as shipwreck survivors and dead arrive in Italy

Surviving migrants are brought aboard Irish and Italian Navy life-boats in the area where their wooden boat capsized and sank off the coast of Libya on Aug 5, 2015.
Surviving migrants are brought aboard Irish and Italian Navy life-boats in the area where their wooden boat capsized and sank off the coast of Libya on Aug 5, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

PALERMO, Italy (AFP) - Survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, in which some 200 migrants were feared drowned, arrived in Sicily on Thursday, as the Irish crew that rescued them described battling to save lives.

Flower-topped coffins containing the bodies of the recovered dead were loaded into black funeral vans.

Save the Children said three of those who died were “very young” children.

The fishing boat, believed to have been carrying more than 600 people, ran into difficulty about 15 nautical miles off Libya on Wednesday and tipped over when rescuers neared, after frantic migrants rushed to one side in their desperation to be saved.

Irish patrol vessel Niamh, first on the scene of the disaster, arrived in Palermo with 367 survivors, including 12 women and 13 children, as well as 25 bodies recovered. It is feared over 100 people were trapped in the hull and went down with the boat.

Red Cross workers handed out water and shoes to those disembarking, who were believed to hail from Sub Saharan Africa, Syria and the Indian subcontinent. Tents on the portside provided shade from the blazing sun and privacy for health checks.

It is not the first time a boat making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean has overturned because of sudden movement onboard when help is in sight.

Many migrants cannot swim, making it a race against time for rescue workers trying to pull them from the water.

Commander Ken Minihane said his crew had done everything to try and save a child plucked from the sea, but could not revive him.

“It was very upsetting to see a mother and father grieving for their young child, and our personnel tried to resuscitate him but unfortunately there was nothing they could do,” he told journalists at the portside.

Earlier, Juan Matias, a project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), described the nightmare he witnessed out at sea.

“It was a horrific sight, people desperately clinging to lifebelts, boats and anything they could, fighting for their lives, amidst people drowning, and those who had already died,” he said.

The MSF boat Dignity One was the second vessel on the scene and helped rescue panicking children and adults from the water. It was delayed, however, by being diverted en route to help another boat in trouble with 94 people aboard.


“The fact that we were first called to assist this boat and then shortly afterwards sent to another one highlights the severe lack of resources available for rescue operations,” Matias said.

More than 2,000 people have already died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year, according to IOM.

The government in Italy, one of the countries bearing the brunt of the crisis, has pleaded repeatedly for more resources to deal with the unremitting wave of boats from the coast of North Africa.

Italy’s coast guard on Thursday said it had saved 381 migrants on another boat, which then sank 30 nautical miles off the Libyan coast.

The MSF comments were echoed by the deputy director of the European Borders Agency Frontex, Gil Arias-Fernandez, who told El Mundo daily that there was a shortage of resources to prevent disasters, because countries were reluctant to lend equipment.

“We have the necessary money but we don’t have the ships, planes and border guards in which to invest the money. We are not getting an adequate response from the European members to meet our needs,” he said.

“It is difficult to guarantee that we won’t have more tragedies,” he said in a separate interview with Spain’s radio Cadena Cope.

The moment when the boat overturned and the migrants were tipped into the sea “was like being flung from a catapult,” Mohamed, a Palestinian farmer, told MSF in a story recounted in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

His daughter Azeel “disappeared underwater. I could only see heads, all around, amid the waves, everyone pushing down on everyone else to try and stay afloat,” he said.

“A wall between me and my daughter, while my wife was gasping for breath.

“And I dived under, ready to die to save my daughter,” he said, describing how he managed to rescue her – “I don’t know how” – and pull his wife to a lifeboat as well.

Wednesday’s disaster was the worst in the Mediterranean since 800 migrants were feared drowned off Libya in April.