I heard the news on the car radio as I was heading to Assisi to cover the Pope’s visit there. Two hundred and fifty people missing after a floundering ship full of immigrants caught fire and sunk half a mile from the shore of Lampedusa. A frenetic rescue operation was underway involving local fisherman, Coast Guard rescue teams, the Italian Marines, and Finance Guard in boats and helicopters desperately trying to drag slippery, gasoline covered bodies out of the water in the dark; some alive, many dead. Cameraman Gianfranco Stara and I continued toward Assisi as the calls and messages started pouring in. I was sent the first photos, the bodies lying in bags on the Molo Favarolo, the pier where I have been so many times filming the migrant ships arriving. The Mayor of Lampedusa Giusi Nicolini was in tears on the radio, a fisherman spoke about the people he managed to drag on his boat wailing desperately because their loved ones had gone down to the bottom. The story of Lampedusa is one of the most dramatic and interesting that I have covered in the 20 years I have been in Italy (for details of numbers see blog posts Lampedusa: Europe’s Port, and Goosebumps in Lampedusa) and I would have turned around and gone there, but I was on assignment to cover Pope Francis visit the town of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. My colleagues Paolo Lucariello, Andrea Rosa, and Fanuel Morelli took off from Rome for Lampedusa. They were joined by Oleg Cetinic from Paris. They are still there filming the rescue operations and the bodies piling up on the pier.
This was a tragedy waiting to happen. For years all spring, summer and fall the boats come in every day with hundreds of migrants, the Italian Coast Guard and rescue teams go out to save the ships, but no one is doing anything concrete to stop or even slow the traffic. The same night two other ships were escorted safely into port carrying hundreds of others. Nearly every day my office receives Coast Guard video of the latest arrival. Back in 2011, it was always men on board, now we are seeing lots of women, children, and little babies. They are from everywhere, Egypt, Tunisia, Liberia, Ghana, Somalia, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Liberia…I’ve spoken to so many I’ve forgotten all the places they come from, but they keep on coming. As the Pope said in Assisi, “So many people flee the slavery of hunger searching for freedom and instead find death.”
This boat was 25 meters (65 feet long) and jammed with perhaps 500 migrants. I’ve been told by rescue workers that the traffickers pack in the immigrants (who pay from 1000 to 3000 euros for the passage) so tightly that they cannot stretch their legs or go to the bathroom. They must remain in place. Apparently the people who paid less on this boat were shoved in below deck and the first divers who went below said they saw hundreds of dead bodies trapped inside, many still hugging each other. According to survivors, the boat’s engine died as it was about to reach Lampedusa and the passengers tried to light a fire to attract attention, but the fire raged out of control, the migrants lunged to one side of the boat and it capsized. The migrants were from Eritrea and Somalia and most of them did not know how to swim. The boat sank off the Isola dei Congli — Rabbit Island. I swam there last summer when the Pope visited Lampedusa. After the Pope left, my colleagues Alessandra Tarantino, Serena Sartini and I took our mopeds out to the beach. It is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen with crystalline clear, turquoise water. One walks out for nearly a quarter mile on soft white sand with water up to one’s knees. But the migrants did not make it to a place where they could touch the ground. They sank to their death a few feet away.
As I write this post, AP is reporting that 111 bodies have been recovered, there are 155 survivors and hundreds more are believed to be in the boat on the sea floor. Rescue operations were halted yesterday due to bad weather but have started again this morning. Bodies have been placed on the floor of a hangar at the airport in Lampedusa, coffins have been put on ferries heading to Sicily and dozens of survivors are now in the Holding Center on the island. It is the most deaths in a maritime incident in the Mediterranean since World War II. Italy declared a day of mourning on Friday and my children participated in a minute of silence on at school. The Pope, speaking in Assisi said it was a “day of tears” and called the incident a “disgrace.” And yet, yesterday while my colleagues were waiting for the sea to calm around Lampedusa so they could cover the rescue operation, several more ships arrived with 325 migrants from Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Tunisia. The weather is better today. I wonder how many more will attempt the trip.
Note to Blog Readers: If anyone is interested, I am happy to do a blog post of the Pope’s visit to Assisi Friday, let me know.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.