Authorities say the search to recover bodies from a fishing boat that sank off the southern island of Lampedusa has been called off for a second day because of bad weather.
Financial police Major Leonardo Ricci said yesterday that choppy seas are preventing divers from reaching the wreck, now resting on the seabed. More than 200 African asylum seekers are confirmed dead and about 200 are still missing.
With the search for bodies suspended on Friday due to bad weather, an emotional Pope Francis said it was “a day of tears” in a “savage world” that ignored refugees.
The government asked Europe to help stem the influx of migrants, as the country mourned the dead.
Islanders in the tiny fishing community held a mass and a silent torch-lit procession, as flags across Italy flew at half mast on Friday and schools marked a minute of silence.
“This is a really important ceremony for the victims and for us,” said Michele Rossi, a local shopkeeper. “We are used to doing our best to save people, but we have never seen anything like this.”
Emergency services on the remote island — Italy’s southernmost point — said they had recovered more than 200 bodies so far and rescued 155 survivors from a boat with an estimated 450 to 500 people on board.
Rescuers said strong currents around the island may have swept other bodies further out to sea, but they were no longer able to leave the port because of strong winds and 2m waves.
“There is horror down there. Dozens of corpses, maybe hundreds,” Rocco Canell, who runs a local diving school and went down before the search was halted, told the Italian news agency ANSA.
“They are all on top of another, piled up, wedged. The lucky ones are those who died first,” he said after descending to the ghostly wreck, which lies on the seabed at a depth of about 40m.
The migrants, almost all Eritreans, departed from the Libyan port of Misrata and stopped to pick up more people in Zuwara, also in Libya.
They told rescuers they set fire to a blanket on board just off Lampedusa to signal to coast guards after their boat began taking on water.
The fire quickly spread on the 20m vessel, which capsized and sank in the early hours of Thursday morning just a few hundred meters from Lampedusa, as its terrified passengers jumped into waters covered in a slick of spilled fuel.
The boat’s Tunisian skipper, already arrested in Italy in April for people trafficking and deported back to Tunisia, has been detained.
Italian Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano appealed for increased European assistance in patrolling Italy’s maritime border and more action in countries of origin in Africa to stem the flow of risky refugee crossings.
“Lampedusa is the new Checkpoint Charlie between the northern and southern hemispheres,” Alfano said, referring to the famous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. “This is not just an Italian problem.”
Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini, said: “After these deaths, we are expecting something to change. Things cannot stay the same.”
“The future of Lampedusa is directly linked to policies on immigration and asylum,” she said.
Dakar-based rights group Raddho called on African states to take joint action to address the “irregular or illegal migration problem.”
It also called on African civil society groups to work together to “inform ... young people of the dangers of illegal or irregular migration, which is considered the road to suicide.”
In Lampedusa, the bodies were being kept in a hangar at the local airport because there was no more room in the morgue and not enough coffins on the island, which has a population of about 6,000 people.
Among the survivors were 40 unaccompanied minors aged between 14 and 17 and six women, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.
They were housed in a badly overcrowded 250-bed refugee center that is now overflowing with about 1,000 people.