CATANIA, Sicily (AP) — Rescue seemed so close at hand.
A ship with experience plucking migrants from unseaworthy smuggler’s boats had arrived soon after the distress call went out. But then the fishing trawler’s navigator made a maneuver that would seal the fate of the 850 people crammed inside: Instead of easing up alongside the merchant ship, he rammed it.
Relief gave way to panic. Terrified migrants rushed to one side, the trawler seized and capsized. What might have been another rescue in a period of unprecedented migrant crossings instead turned into a horrifying statistic: The deadliest shipwreck ever in the Mediterranean Sea.
The accounts of survivors who arrived early Tuesday in this Sicilian port 48 hours after the disaster offered new details of the tragedy. The traumatized witnesses corroborated a death toll of at least 800, making the capsizing “the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean that we have ever recorded,” the U.N. refugee agency said.
Just 28 migrants, all men and boys in their teens, survived. And despite the enormous toll, only 24 bodies were recovered — frequently the case when ships sink on the high seas, especially when most passengers are locked below deck, as was the case Saturday night.
Aid agencies were quick to issue another warning: At the current pace, 2015 is set to be the deadliest year on record for migrants making the perilous crossing as they flee war, repression and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. In April alone, 1,300 have died.
The International Organization for Migration said the toll for the year could top 30,000 — nearly 10 times the 2014 total of 3,279, itself a record.
“We just want to make sure people understand how much more … rapid these deaths have been coming this year,” said Joel Millman, the IOM spokesman.
Italian ships have rescued well over 10,000 people over the past two weeks, an unprecedented number for such a short period, authorities say. The rescues continued Tuesday, with another 112 migrants, all men, picked up in a deflating rubber life raft in waters some 50 miles (70 kilometers) north of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
On Tuesday, seamen who participated in saving survivors of the weekend capsizing told tales of near-miraculous rescue.
Among the ships to arrive in the pre-dawn hours Sunday was the coast guard ship Gregoretti, which dispatched medics in two dinghies. By then, the trawler had already disappeared into the sea.
“We found, literally, a floating cemetery. Bodies were everywhere. With the dinghies we had to literally slalom among the corpses,” said Enrico Vitello, a 22-year-old medic from the Order of Malta.
Hearing screams, they killed the engines and shined a spotlight, locating a migrant floating in the sea.
“We got close by and rescued him,” said Giuseppe Pomilla, a 30-year-old medic. “He asked our names and where we were from. We told him we were Italians and came to rescue him. He was so happy.”
Soon after, a boy floating in the sea grabbed their attention.
“We couldn’t understand if he was alive or dead. He had his eyes wide open looking at us. He was not blinking, not moving or talking. We only realized he was alive when he grabbed us suddenly,” Pomilla said.
When they took him on board, he “exploded in tears,” the medic said.
Among the survivors were two alleged smugglers, who were detained for investigation of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. The Tunisian navigator, identified as 27-year-old Mohammed Al
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