LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AP) — Survivors of a fiery shipwreck off a tiny Italian island that killed more than 100 African migrants looking for a better life in Europe clung to empty water bottles to keep from drowning, were partially clothed and covered in gasoline, a witness said Friday.
Lampedusa resident Vito Fiorino said he was the first to come across dozens of migrants scattered in the sea while he was on an early morning fishing expedition. Some didn't have the strength to grab the lifesaver thrown to them and the migrants said they fought to stay alive for three hours, Fiorino said.
"It was a scene from a film, something you hope never to see in life," he told The Associated Press.
Fiorino said 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 10-meter (32-foot) boat.
On Friday, Italian coast guard boats carrying divers headed out from Lampedusa, but choppy waters hampered their search.
The scope of the tragedy at Lampedusa — with 111 bodies recovered so far, 155 people rescued and up to an estimated 250 still missing, according to officials — prompted outpourings of grief and demands for a comprehensive European Union immigration policy to deal with the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and strife in Africa and the Middle East.
Pope Francis called Friday a "day of tears," denouncing the "savage" system that he said drives people to leave their homes for a better life, yet doesn't care when they die in the process.
The 66-foot (20-meter) smuggler's boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, when it caught fire early Thursday near the Lampedusa port, authorities said. The fire panicked those on board the rickety boat. They stampeded to one side, flipping it over, and hundreds of men, women and children, many of whom could not swim, were flung into the Mediterranean Sea.
"The migrants told us there were about 500 of them," Veronica Lentini, a field officer for the International Organization for Migration, told reporters. "The boat capsized and they fell in the water, but many of them were trapped inside the boat."
Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the region have taken part in the search and rescue operations. Coast guard divers late Thursday found the wreck on the sea floor, 130 feet (40 meters) below the surface, with bodies scattered around it.
Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens into Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicolored tarps on the docks.
"Today the operations we plan to do are focused on searching inside the ship where bodies are trapped," Capt. Filippo Marini, a coast guard spokesman, told reporters. "We don't have the number of the bodies; we don't know the real number yet."
Barbara Molinario of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Lampedusa said authorities were expecting the number of missing to be around 250, based on survivor accounts.
The UNHCR believes this is likely to be the biggest such incident recorded involving migrants in the Mediterranean. But it points out that there are many more incidents of boats arriving with many dead - citing for example one with 63 dead on board and seven survivors, and others in which survivors arrive saying dozens have died at sea, but can't be verified because the bodies are never found.
"Here it is all within 600 meters (650 yards) of shore and we will have more clarity," said Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR representative in Italy.
Thousands make the perilous crossing each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests.
Hundreds of migrants reach Italy's shores every day, particularly during the summer, when seas are usually calmer.
Lampedusa, 70 miles (113 kilometers) off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.
Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Milan.