KALMATA (Greece), June 15 (AP) — At least 79 people were killed and many more missing when a fishing boat packed with migrants trying to reach Europe capsized and sank off the coast of Greece on Wednesday, authorities said. It was the worst such disaster this year.
Coast Guard, Navy and merchant ships, as well as aircraft, have dispersed for a massive search and rescue operation that will continue overnight. It is unclear how many passengers are missing, but some initial reports suggest there may have been hundreds of people on board when the ship sank far from shore.
Aerial photos of the dilapidated blue vessel released by the Greek Coast Guard show that nearly every inch of the deck is packed with people.
Greece’s caretaker prime minister Ioannis Sarmas declared three days of national mourning and “our condolences to all the victims of ruthless smugglers who took advantage of human misfortune”.
Coastguard spokesman Nikos Alexiou told state ERT television that it was impossible to estimate the number of passengers accurately. He said the 80-100-foot vessel appeared to capsize after people suddenly moved to one side.
“The outer decks were packed and we presume the interior (of the ship) was full,” he said. “It looked as though the crowd on board changed and then capsized.”
Efforts by its own ships and merchant ships to assist the ship were repeatedly rebuffed, with those on board insisting they wanted to continue to Italy, a Coast Guard statement said. Coast Guard officials said the trawler’s engine failed around 1:40 a.m. Wednesday, and less than an hour later, the boat began to suddenly roll side to side before capsizing.
The statement said the ship sank 10 to 15 minutes later.
Ioannis Zafiropoulos, deputy mayor of the southern port city of Kalamata, said his information indicated there were “more than 500 people” on board.
Authorities said 104 people had been rescued after it sank in international waters about 75 kilometers southwest of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. The site is near the deepest point in the Mediterranean Sea, with depths of up to 17,000 feet that could hinder any efforts to locate the wreck.
Twenty-five survivors, ranging in age from 16 to 49, were hospitalized with hypothermia or fever.
In the port of Kalamata, about 70 exhausted survivors lay in a large warehouse in sleeping bags and blankets provided by rescuers, while paramedics set up tents outside for anyone who needed first aid.
Katerina Tsata, head of the Kalamata Red Cross Volunteer Group, said the migrants also received psychological support.
“They suffered very badly physically and mentally,” she said.
Rescue volunteer Constantinos Vlachonikolos said almost all of the survivors were men.
“They’re very tired. How could they not?” he said. Rescuers said many of those pulled from the water could not swim and were clutching at debris. The Coast Guard said no one had life jackets.
The Greek Coast Guard said 79 bodies had been recovered so far. Survivors included 30 Egyptians, 10 Pakistanis, 35 Syrians and two Palestinians, the agency said.
The ship, bound for Italy, is believed to have left the Tobruk region in eastern Libya – a country thrown into chaos after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Traffickers have benefited from the instability and made Libya one of the main starting points for those trying to reach Europe on smuggling boats.
The route from North Africa across the central Mediterranean to Italy is the deadliest in the world, according to the United Nations migration agency IOM, which has recorded more than 21,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014.
Smugglers use unseaworthy vessels, cramming as many migrants as possible into them — sometimes in locked cargo holds — for journeys that can take days. They headed for Italy, which, across the Mediterranean from Libya and Tunisia, is closer than Greece to the Western European countries most migrants hope to end up in.
In February, a wooden boat from Turkey sank near Cutro in southern Italy, killing at least 94 people in the worst sinking in the Mediterranean so far this year.
The Italian coastguard first alerted Greek authorities and EU border protection agency Frontex of an approaching vessel on Tuesday.
The International Organization for Migration said initial reports suggested as many as 400 people were on board. A network of activists said it had received a distress call from a boat in the same area whose passengers said it was carrying 750 people. But it was unclear whether it was the ship that sank.
After the first alert, a Frontex aircraft and two merchant ships spotted the vessel heading north at high speed, and more aircraft and ships were dispatched to the area, according to the Greek coastguard.
But the Coast Guard said in a statement that repeated calls to the ship for assistance were rejected.
“In the afternoon, a merchant vessel approached the ship and offered it food and supplies, while (the passengers) refused any further assistance,” the Coast Guard said, adding that a second merchant vessel later delivered more supplies and supplies. assistance, but was rejected.
In the evening, a Coast Guard patrol boat arrived on the ship “and confirmed that there was a large number of migrants on deck,” the statement said. “But they refused any help and said they wanted to continue to Italy.”
Coast Guard boats accompanied the migrant boat before leading a massive rescue operation of all boats in the area.
Call 9, an activist network that provides a hotline for stranded migrants, said it was contacted by people on board the ship in distress on Tuesday afternoon. That ship was in the same area as the one that sank, but it’s unclear if it was the same ship.
The group notified Greek authorities and Frontex. In a communication with 911, the migrant reported that the boat was overcrowded and that the captain had abandoned ship in a small boat, according to the group. They asked for food and water from a merchant ship.
“We are concerned that hundreds of people have drowned,” Alarm Phone said in a statement.
The deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean in living memory occurred on April 18, 2015, when an overcrowded fishing boat collided with a cargo ship trying to rescue it off Libya. Only 28 survived. Forensic experts deduce that there were originally 1,100 people on board. (Associated Press)
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