Choppy waters have hampered the search by Italian divers for hundreds of migrants missing after their ship capsized off the southern island of Lampedusa.
The scope of the tragedy – with 111 bodies recovered so far, 155 people rescued and up to an estimated 250 still missing, according to officials – prompted outpourings of grief and demands for a comprehensive European Union immigration policy to deal with the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and strife in Africa and the Middle East.
Pope Francis called Friday a “day of tears,” denouncing the “savage” system that he said drives people to leave their homes for a better life, yet doesn’t care when they die in the process.
The 66-ft (20 metre) smuggler’s boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, when it caught fire early on Thursday near the Lampedusa port. The fire panicked those on board the rickety boat. They stampeded to one side, flipping it over, and hundreds of men, women and children, many of whom could not swim, were flung into the Mediterranean.
“The migrants told us there were about five hundred of them,” Veronica Lentini, a field officer for the International Organisation for Migration, told reporters. “The boat capsized and they fell in the water, but many of them were trapped inside the boat.”
Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the region have taken part in the search and rescue operations. Coast guard divers found the wreck on the sea floor, 130 ft (40m) below the surface, with bodies scattered around it.
Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens into Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicoloured tarpaulins on the docks.
“Today the operations we plan to do are focused on searching inside the ship where bodies are trapped,” Capt Filippo Marini, a coast guard spokesman, told reporters early on Friday. “We don’t have the number of the bodies; we don’t know the real number yet.”
Barbara Molinario of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Lampedusa said authorities were expecting the number of missing to be around 250, based on survivor accounts.
The sinking was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous crossing that thousands make each year, seeking a new life in the EU. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests.
Hundreds of migrants reach Italy’s shores every day, particularly during the summer, when seas are usually calmer.
Lampedusa, 70 miles (113 kms) off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the centre of wave after wave of illegal immigration.