An Italian coast guard patrol found 25 people choked to death in the engine room of a tiny boat fleeing Libya crammed with 271 African refugees that landed on Monday on the holiday island of Lampedusa.
The 15m boat was heavily overcrowded and survivors said they had been at sea for three days. Prosecutors said the victims, crowded in a space accessible only through a trap door, appeared to have died from asphyxiation.
Refugees cited in Italian news reports said the people in the engine room had tried to get out, but were blocked by others because there was not enough space on deck, and probably died of -intoxication from the engine fumes.
“We will carry out an autopsy to find the precise cause of death even though initial checks show that it was apparently due to asphyxiation. Police will question the other refugees,” local prosecutor Renato Di Natale told reporters.
Italian Secretary of State for Immigration Sonia Viale expressed “deep pain” at seeing “once again, so many victims of human traffickers with no scruples,” while the spokeswoman for the UN’s refugee agency in Italy, Laura Boldrini, called for “light to be shed immediately on what happened.”
Prosecutors opened an investigation into the deaths, but have said they believe the refugees died in international waters as some of the corpses had already begun decomposing when they were pulled out by Lampedusa firemen.
“Given the state in which the corpses were found, they could have been dead for at least 48 hours,” a local doctor, Pietro Bartolo, told reporters.
The corpses were laid out side by side in green body bags on a Lampedusa pier and then taken to the local morgue for autopsies.
The refugees did not initially mention the dead bodies and the grim discovery was made only when the coast guard inspected the engine room below deck.
“Our team boarded the vessel for docking procedure at around 1:20am,” said Cosimo Nicastro, a spokesman for the coast guard. “There were 271 people on board, including 36 women and 21 children and below deck, unfortunately, they also found 25 bodies of men.”
The coast guard said the engine room was only accessible through a 50cm wide trap door from the deck.
A fireman who helped pull out the bodies from the boat said: “I will never forget the scene.”
The charity Save the Children said the survivors were mainly from Ghana, Nigeria and Somalia.
“They are worn out and shocked by what happened,” Tarek Brhane, a local representative of the charity, said in a statement. “Among the dead are many of their friends and loved ones.”