LAMPEDUSA, Italy — Survivors of a fiery shipwreck that killed more than 110 African migrants clung for hours to empty water bottles in the dark, trying desperately to keep themselves from drowning in the sea, an Italian fisherman said Friday.
Lampedusa resident Vito Fiorino said he was the first to come across dozens of migrants scattered in the Mediterranean Sea while he was on an early-morning fishing expedition.
At first, he thought their weak cries were those of seagulls. Then he saw the condition they were in, coated with gasoline from a smugglers’ boat, barely clothed or wearing rags. Some didn’t have the strength to grab the lifesaving ring thrown to them. Once on board, they told him they had been fighting for three hours to stay alive.
“It was a scene from a film, something you hope never to see in life,” he said.
Fiorino said he alerted the Italian coast guard and other boats when he came upon desperate migrants just before 7 a.m. Thursday. He and his friends lifted 47 people onto his 32-foot boat.
Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island 70 miles off Tunisia, is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.
On Friday, Italian coast guard boats carrying divers headed out from Lampedusa to search for more bodies, but choppy waters hampered their efforts.
The scope of the tragedy at Lampedusa — with 111 bodies recovered so far, 155 people rescued and up to an estimated 250 still missing, according to officials — has prompted outpourings of grief. Italian officials demanded 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.
Dutch lawmaker Tineke Strik, who has reported on migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, urged Italy to investigate claims that some fishing boats or other vessels had ignored calls for help from the doomed boat. Some survivors told U.N. workers that a fishing boat had passed them but it was not clear if the boat saw the migrants, said Barbara Molinario of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Strik, in comments reported Friday, acknowledged that some provisions of Italian law “effectively dissuade” boat captains from helping migrants in distress.