Into the Deep Blue Cemetery off Lampedusa

Italian Firefighter video shot by scuba divers of the ship filled with immigrants that sunk off the coast of Lampedusa. October 4, 2013 Credit: Vigili di Fuoco

Italian Firefighter video shot by scuba divers of the ship filled with immigrants that sunk off the coast of Lampedusa. October 4, 2013 Credit: Vigili del Fuoco

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.

Firefighter scuba diver preparing to go down below to see sunk. Freeze frame of firefighter video. Credit: Vigili del Fuoco. October 4, 2013

Firefighter scuba diver preparing to go down below to search the wreckage. Freeze frame of firefighter video. Credit: Vigili del Fuoco. October 4, 2013

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.”

Bodies of the victims laid out on the Favarolo Pier in Lampedusa. October 14, 2013. Credit: Nino Radazzo, Palermo Health Care Service

Bodies of the victims laid out on the Favarolo Pier in Lampedusa. October 14, 2013. Credit: Nino Radazzo, Palermo Health Care Service

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.

AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino takes of photo of the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island) on Lampedusa. July 8, 2013. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino takes of photo of the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island) on Lampedusa. July 8, 2013. Photo by Trisha Thomas

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.

A boat from Sfax, a port in Tunisia, at the boat graveyard on Lampedusa where all the migrants boats are left to rot. July 8, 2013. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A boat from Sfax, a port in Tunisia, at the boat graveyard on Lampedusa where all the migrants boats are left to rot. July 8, 2013. Photo by Trisha Thomas

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.

16 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Nancy Rockwell
    2013/10/06

    Thanks so much for writing this, for caring, and for the details about how this accident happened. I think the Pope hit the right note, and yes, I would love to read what he said in Assisi about the legacy he is claiming, and his visit there has not been on the CNN International News. Bravo, Trisha!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/07

      Thank you Nancy. I feel very strongly about the whole Lampedusa immigrants question. On the Pope’s visit to Assisi, I will prepare a post now. I am not sure how much he said about the “legacy he is claiming”. I suppose the strongest words were in the “Salla Della Spogliazione” (the stripping room) there a young Francis stripped off all his clothing in front of the Bishop and said he was giving up all his belongings and worldly wealth to dedicate himself to God.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Adri
    2013/10/06

    It is indeed a disgrace. How many more of these unfortunates have to die? The world is a cruel place. It seems that many people have no place in their hearts or their countries for these people whose only wish is to provide a safe place to live for their families. This is just so terribly sad. Bart and i were shocked to hear about this on the radio.What will happen to the survivors? Will they be allowed to remain in Italy? Or will they be returned to their homeland?

    And yes, I would love to read about the Pope’s visit to Assisi. I find him the most compelling figure on the world scene today.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/07

      Thank you Adri. I heard an interesting interview on the radio this morning about the whole migrants situation with an expert who said that most of these people do remain in Europe, but not in Italy— they make their way up to Germany, Sweden and other places where many of them have relatives. An Italian newspaper today had an interview with an Eritrean woman who lives in Sweden whose brother was on the ship and is still missing. She now has legal residence status in Sweden and her brother was hoping to reach her. Now she is in Lampedusa waiting for divers to find his body. I have spoken to many of these migrants who have relatives in Germany, France and elsewhere in Europe they pass through Lampedusa and move on to where they have family.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Alan
    2013/10/06

    . . at the bottom this (and similar) tragedies lies the West and its policies of plunder and destabilisation. Almost every one of those fleeing are from countries where ‘Western’ boots are on or have been on the ground – be it US jihadis in Syria; US backed Kenyan/Ethiopian troops in Somalia; Israeli/US interferance in so-called South Sudan. Having created the disaster the West then closes its borders to those fleeing – so the evil they have done is compounded. Those living their subsidised, comfortable lives in the West need to wake up and find their consciences.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/07

      The truth is we turn our backs on all these people when they are suffering in their own countries, but when they die on Europe’s shores, suddenly everyone is scandalized.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    lega
    2013/10/06

    Terrible sadness for people who are desperate to have the opportunity for a life that many of us take for granted. How can we believe in a kind and loving God? That is a question for Pope Francis who has demonstrated that he is very kind and loving to all.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/07

      It is such an eye-opener to me to see what these people are willing to do to reach Europe and you are right that it makes us all realize that perhaps we should not take for granted all that we are so lucky to have.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    miranda
    2013/10/07

    Love for you to do a blog on Pope’s visit to Assisi

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/07

      Ok, will try to do that today.

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    PJ
    2013/10/07

    When I first heard this news on TV it felt powerful and immediate because of all your excellent reporting from Lampedusa. It is geographically distant but the magnitude to the tragedy is much closer given you excellent selection of posts and descriptions and photos of Lampedusa. It is a reminder of how enured we become to the condition of many in our world. Thanks for keeping us informed and aware!

    L/D

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/07

      Thank you Dad. It is so fascinating to me because the situation is so dramatic, the problem is so enormous and involves so many people and countries and it seems as though no one really wants to face it.

      Reply
  7. Avatar
    Pauline
    2013/10/07

    I have goosebumps as I read through this post, Trisha. I have no idea how unregulated this whole situation is. 500 migrants packed in like sardines?! Wow. May the souls of those who perished rest in peace.

    I want to hear about the Pope’s visit to Assisi. Please and thanks :)

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/08

      Thanks for your comment Pauline. It is totally unregulated, and inhumane. My daughter was studying the slave trade in her history class this year and the slaves were packed into the hold the way these migrants were. It is wrong and has to be stopped.

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    Ciao Chow Linda
    2013/10/07

    Aren’t we all migrants? I think the world has forgotten that we can no longer remain isolated in our protected and comfortable, privileged countries. It all seems so unfair and is just a circumstance of birth that we have rights and property denied to others who come from troubled and less fortunate places. This is a problem that requires a response not just from Italy however. The entire EU – and the world – should be doing something about this.
    Re:pope – yes, please keep those stories coming. I would love to read about his visit to Assisi from you.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/10/08

      I totally agree with you Linda — the whole world needs to respond to this. We cannot sit comfortably in the West and ignore what is going on.

      Reply

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