ROME — A ship carrying African migrants to Europe caught fire and capsized Thursday off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, killing at least 114 people as hundreds were dumped into the sea, officials said. More than 150 people were rescued, but about the same number were unaccounted for.
It was one of the deadliest recent accidents in the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing that thousands of African migrants make every year, seeking a new life in the European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head to slip people into Europe aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy fishing boats, providing no life vests or other safety features.
“We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances,” Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on Lampedusa, told Radio 24. He initially put the death toll at 94 but said it would certainly rise as search operations continued. Italian coast guard divers later reported seeing at least 20 more bodies around the boat, which was by then lying on the seabed.
“It’s an immense tragedy,” said Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini.
Lampedusa is closer to Africa than to the Italian mainland — a mere 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia — and is frequently the destination for smugglers’ boats.
The 66-foot boat was thought to be carrying 450 to 500 people, according to the International Organization for Migration. The boat left from Tripoli with migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Italian coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla said.
Antonio Candela, a government health commissioner, said 159 people had been rescued.
According to Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, the ship began taking on water during the night after the motor was cut as it neared tiny Conigli island off Lampedusa.
Usually smugglers have cellphones or satellite phones to call for help when they near shore or run into trouble, but this time they didn’t. Instead, someone on board set fire to a piece of material to attract the attention of passing ships, only to have the fire spread to the ship itself.
The passengers all moved to one side to avoid the fire, flipping the ship and spilling hundreds of men, women and children into the sea, he said.
Alfano was one of several Italian officials who demanded that the 28-nation European Union do more to put an end to the smuggling operations and help border countries such as Italy cope.
“Let us hope that the European Union realizes this isn’t an Italian problem, but a European one,” he said.