KALAMATA (Greece), June 15 (AP) — Kassem Abu Zeed realized his wife and brother-in-law were on a fishing trawler full of migrants in Take the first flight from Germany to Greece after sinking in the Mediterranean Sea.
Relatives of the migrants gathered in the southern port city of Kalamata to search for their loved ones as rescue boats fanned out Thursday to search for hundreds of people missing in the tragedy.
“The last time we spoke was eight days ago and she told me she was getting ready to get on the boat,” Abzeid told The Associated Press on Thursday. “She has paid $5,000 to the smugglers”. “And then we all know what happened.”
Abu Zid, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee living in Hamburg, said Esra Aoun, 21, and her brother Abdullah, 19, risked their journey from Libya after failing to find a dilapidated fishing trawler to Italy. The legal way to join him in Germany.
The chances of her surviving the sinking, which killed at least 78 people, are low. A massive search and rescue operation involving more than a dozen boats and three planes has turned up no survivors since its initial phase early Wednesday, when 104 people were rescued.
There are no women among the survivors. Now, Abuzad hopes Abdullah may be among those from Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories who are temporarily living in warehouses in Kalamata or recuperating in hospitals from hypothermia and exposure.
“The chances of finding (more survivors) are slim,” Nikos Spanos, a retired Greek coast guard admiral, told state-run ERT television.
Authorities feared hundreds of people, including many women and children, were trapped below deck when the overcrowded fishing trawler capsized overnight in deep water some 75 kilometers (45 miles) offshore.
Based on interviews with survivors, the United Nations migration agency, known as IOM, estimated the boat was carrying 700 to 750 people, including at least 40 children. That could make the sinking one of the deadliest ever recorded in the central Mediterranean.
The survivors were shocked, said Erasmia Roumana, head of the UN refugee agency mission.
“They want to get in touch with the family to tell them that everything is ok and they have been asking about the missing people. Many friends and relatives are missing,” Roumana said.
Mohammad Abdi Marwan said by phone from the Kurdish-majority town of Kobani in northeastern Syria that five of his relatives, including a 14-year-old child, were on board. Marwan said he hadn’t heard from them since the ship sank.
He believes his 29-year-old nephew Ali Sheikhi is alive because family members spotted him in photos of survivors, but that has not been confirmed.
“Those smugglers were supposed to have only 500 on board, now we’ve heard 750. What is this? Are they cows or are they human? How can they do this?” Marwan said. He said his relatives each paid $6,000 for the trip.
Greece declared three days of mourning and a Supreme Court prosecutor ordered an investigation.
Greek authorities said the ship appeared to have been sailing normally shortly before it sank, and that the ship had refused to be rescued several times. But a network of activists said they had received multiple distress calls from the ship at the same time.
The Greek Coast Guard said they were notified of the boat late Tuesday morning and observed it “on a steady course” by helicopter at 6 p.m.
Shortly after, Greek search and rescue personnel contacted someone on the ship via satellite phone who repeatedly said passengers needed food and water but wanted to continue sailing to Italy.
The merchant ship delivered supplies and watched the vessel until early Wednesday morning when satellite phone users reported engine problems. About 40 minutes later, according to the Coast Guard, the migrant boat suddenly began to shake violently before sinking.
Coast Guard experts believe the boat may have run out of fuel or experienced engine failure, and the movement of passengers caused it to tip and eventually capsize.
Alarm Phone, an activist network that provides a hotline for troubled immigrants, said the problems started earlier in the day. The network said they were contacted by personnel on board shortly after 3 p.m. for assistance. They said they “couldn’t make it through the night”.
At around 6:20 p.m., Alarm Phone wrote, immigrants reported that the boat was not moving and that the captain had abandoned ship in a small boat. The two accounts could not be reconciled immediately.
Experts say maritime law will require Greek authorities to attempt a rescue if a ship becomes unsafe, regardless of whether passengers request it. Search and rescue “is not a two-way contract. You don’t need to agree,” said retired Italian coast guard admiral Vittorio Alessandro.
Aerial photos of the ship before it sank, released by Greek authorities, showed a crowded deck. Most were not wearing life jackets.
Alessandro said overcrowding, a lack of life jackets or the absence of a skipper were all reasons to intervene.
Greece’s caretaker minister in charge of civil defense, Evangelos Turnas, defended the coastguard’s actions and said the migrants had repeatedly refused assistance and insisted on continuing to Italy.
“The Coast Guard cannot intervene with vessels that do not accept intervention in international waters,” he said. “Also consider that Coast Guard intervention may put at risk an overloaded vessel, which could capsize as a result of the intervention.”
Coast Guard investigators interviewed eight survivors.
The bodies of the dead migrants were transferred to a morgue outside Athens, where DNA samples and mugshots would be taken to begin the identification process.
The sinking site is near the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, where depths can reach 17,000 feet (5,200 meters), potentially hindering any efforts to locate the wreck.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to strengthen EU cooperation with neighboring countries in an effort to further crack down on migrant smugglers.
But human rights groups argue that the crackdown is forcing migrants and refugees to take longer, more dangerous routes to reach safety.
Eftychia Georgiadi, the Greece-based official for the charity International Rescue Committee, said the disaster should be a wake-up call for the EU.
“Nobody makes these dangerous journeys unless they feel they have no choice,” she said. The EU’s failure to provide safer migration pathways “effectively closes the door to those seeking protection.”
Since 2014, the IOM has documented more than 21,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean.
The deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean in living memory occurred on April 18, 2015, when a fishing boat full of migrants collided with a freighter trying to rescue it off the coast of Libya. Only 28 survived. Forensic experts deduce that there were originally 1,100 people on board. (Associated Press)
(This is an unedited and auto-generated story from a Syndicated News feed, the content body may not have been modified or edited by LatestLY staff)