Blanket Fire Started Migrant Boat Tragedy

A man receives assistance at the Palermo Civico hospital in Italy, Oct. 3, 2013, after being rescued off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Alessandro Fucarini/AP Photo

ASSISI, Italy - We will never know exactly how many people died on Thursday when that overloaded boat of illegal migrants capsized just half a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Officially 155 people survived and 111 bodies have been recovered. But survivors estimate there were 500 people crammed aboard the rickety fishing trawler.. With rough waters today, the Italian Coast Guard said it was too dangerous for divers to continue and so the search for bodies has been suspended.

At best we can estimate that about 350 people died. All were desperately poor Africans - mostly from Ghana, Nigeria and Eritrea. They paid smugglers and boarded the boat in Libya hoping to follow the treacherous and well-travelled route to Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island that is closer to Africa than it is to Europe - it sits just 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia.

Every year thousands of poor and desperate Africans pay smugglers to get them to Lampedusa. For them it is the gateway to the freedom and prosperity of Europe. And every year hundreds die attempting the crossing.

But while the sad story is all-too-familiar, Thursday's calamity is in a league of its own. According to the survivors, they were at sea for two days. They arrived off the coast of Lampedusa before dawn. With no cell phone or radio on board, one of the men on board lit a blanket hoping to get help from fishermen in the area.

But the flame ignited gasoline and the boat caught fire. In the panic the throng surged to one side and the boat tipped.

"The boat capsized and they fell in the water, but many of them were trapped inside the boat," said Veronica Lentini, a field officer for the International Organization for Migration, told reporters.

One fisherman said when he first heard the screams he thought he was hearing seagulls. It was only when he got closer that he realized it was people who were screaming.

Fisherman Vito Fiorino says he was the first to arrive on the scene. He describes finding people floating in the water, some using empty water bottles to stay afloat, many nude and covered in gasoline. Others, he said, didn't have the strength to grab the life preservers extended to them.

Fiorino told The Associated Press that he alerted the coast guard and neighboring boats when he came upon the scene just before 7 a.m. Thursday. He and his friends brought 47 people onto his 32-foot boat, and that the migrants said they had been in the water for three hours.

Few of the passengers could swim. While there were women - including pregnant women - and children on board the only survivors were men.

In the central Italian city of Assisi today Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the shrine of his namesake, St. Francis. On Thursday he had called the tragedy in Lampedusa "a disgrace" and today it was still on his mind as he talked about a world "that does not care about many people who have to flee poverty and hunger, flee in search of freedom and many times they find death, as happened yesterday in Lampedusa".

"Today," he said, "is a day for tears."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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