Instead, Thursday’s tragedy may prove to be the biggest loss of life involving migrants undertaking the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, where such deaths are all too common and often are impossible to verify because bodies are lost far out at sea and never found.
“Here it is all within 600 meters of shore and we will have more clarity,” said Laurens Jolles, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Italy.
More often, unseaworthy vessels limp to shore with many dead on board, including one recent incident with 63 bodies on a boat with seven survivors.
Remote and far from the Italian mainland, Lampedusa was ill-equipped to deal with such a staggering death toll: Four hearses arrived on an overnight ferry and caskets had to be flown in.
According to survivor accounts, the group of some 500 migrants who boarded the rickety trawler had been living together in the same building in the Libyan capital of Tripoli for three months. Almost all were from Eritrea and all had the same goal of reaching Europe, said Barbara Molinario, a UNHCR public information officer.
“They boarded the same boat and were at sea for two days. At 4 in the morning of the third day, they spotted land. They felt safe, because they thought they had made it. They saw the lights from land,” she said.
But the boat’s engine had died and they were trapped in a rocky bay where they couldn’t land, Molinario said. A fishing boat passed, but didn’t stop. It was unclear if those on board saw the migrants or were aware of their plight.
To draw attention to the distressed vessel, someone set a towel on fire. But many on board did not know the flames were intentional and panic ensued. People stampeded to one side of the boat, capsizing it and flinging hundreds of men, women and children, many of whom could not swim, into the sea. Molinario said many victims were trapped in the hull.