After Four Days At Sea, A Migrant Tragedy Plays Out Just 200 Meters From Italy's Shore
Dozens of migrants are confirmed dead, with many more casualties feared. Survivors say the crew threw people overboard, with land finally in sight after a perilous Mediterranean journey from Turkey.
STECCATO DI CUTRO — “Land!” They kept screaming, praying and vomiting. Force 6 waves. Unrelenting wind.
“When we saw the lights, we thought we were safe," recounted one of the survivors. "‘They’re coming for us!’ we all starting to shout. We were sure we had made it. But the crew started throwing boys down, pulling them by the arms and throwing them into the sea. Panic broke out on board. The boat flipped. And they hadn't seen us; they didn't come to save us."
An estimated 150 to 180 people were on board the trawler, having already survived a terrifying crossing from Turkey. But at least 74 didn't make it, confirmed dead, having drowned just 200 meters from the shore. Just 200 meters from arriving in Europe.
Here in Steccato di Cutro, a small town in Italy's southern Calabria region, a fisherman named Antonio Grazioso called to ask his construction worker friend Vincenzo Luciano to go with him down to the shoreline, because he heard there had been a boat in trouble. They arrived at the beach around 5 a.m.
"After what I saw and will never be able to forget, I’m not sure I would do it again,” Luciano said.
The drowned bodies had been stripped by the storm. “We didn't know where to start. Bodies were everywhere, for at least 200 meters of beach. Dead everywhere," he said. "An unbelievable thing. A woman, her arms wide, as if crucified. Two children were next to her. And we took so many from the waves — some still alive.”
A mission to survive
On the 20-meter fishing boat that left from the Turkish coast, there were two boxes loaded with naphtha, a flammable liquid gas mixture used as fuel. And water, cookies, Red Bull, ginseng, prayer books, size 34 sneakers, a child’s bicycle, and only a few life jackets — because traveling with a life jacket is more expensive.
Those on board included Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians. Many sent by their relatives, on a mission to survive, with savings scraped together over years of work and sacrifice. Four days at sea; three full nights against the waves, before arriving to catch a glimpse of those lights on the Italian coast.
Among the confirmed 74 casualties, many of them minors. Eighty-two people have been rescued by Monday morning. Many more cannot be found, although no one can say exactly how many. Twenty-one boys and children are hospitalized in the pediatric ward of nearby Crotone hospital.
It was a boat loaded with the future. A blue wooden fishing boat, now completely destroyed by the waves, smashed to pieces between the surf and the shoreline.
We've seen this all before. The same story arriving near the coastlines of Lampedusa, Malta, Portopalo di Capo Passero: nothing changes, except the names of the dead. And this time, they had arrived so close.
Red Cross personnel helping survivors after they washed ashore following a shipwreck, at a beach near Steccato di Cutro, Crotone province, southern Italy.
Dying at Europe's coastline
“They had already arrived,” says Gianluca Messina, staring out at the sea. He is the leader of a dive team that arrived from Sicily. He was also at the scene in Lampedusa on Oct. 3, 2013, for a shipwreck nearly identical to this one when almost 400 migrants, mostly Eritreans, lost their lives.
Those who did know how to swim tried to keep the youngest alive.
“I can't believe it. They were one step away from safety this time too,” he says. “When we arrived, at first light, many bodies were already on the shoreline. The hull of the fishing boat was still in one piece. There is a video where you can see it clearly. It must have hit a shoal over there, where the first waves break. The boat capsized and they all went overboard. But we know very well that many of these people can’t swim because they’ve never seen the sea in their lives.”
Those who did know how to swim tried to keep the youngest alive. “We were surrounded by dead bodies,” says Laura De Paoli, a doctor with the Knights of Malta Cisom Foundation. “At one point, we saw two men holding a small child afloat. We managed to retrieve them; they were the child’s brother and uncle. We tried to revive him, but his lungs were full of water and he didn't make it.”
On the beach, a parish priest blesses the bodies. “We are facing an apocalyptic scene. I saw a little boy pulled out of the waves completely naked, and in that image, I saw the body of Christ," says Don Pasquale Squillacioti.
The remains of the boat carrying migrants washed up on the beach by the sea.
Our failure; their death
The boat had been spotted before the shipwreck. The Crotone harbor master’s office had known about the dire situation since 10 p.m. Saturday. A plane flown by the European border agency, Frontex, had reported the boat's location. But sea conditions made it impossible to attempt a rescue. Some time between 3 and 4 a.m. the ship managed to get within 200 meters of safety.
Here, the bodies are lined up inside white plastic bags, numbered like so: “KR 14 F 9.” Crotone, 14th victim, female, presumed age 9.
At 6 p.m. on the beach of our failure and their death, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi arrives. A procession of blue cars passes down a dirt road, between a cane field and several unauthorized buildings. The top brass of the Carabinieri police force get out of the vehicles, but the minister doesn't want to meet journalists. His car continues toward the local prefecture, where an official meeting will be held.
Europe's biggest graveyard
When darkness comes, it's clear that there is nothing more to hope for. It’s cold. The wind shifts to the north, and the current stirs the tide in different directions, toward the shore and then the open sea. The new dead join the old dead, in the giant graveyard that is the Mediterranean.
Survivors are taken to the Reception Center for Asylum Seekers in Isola di Capo Rizzuto. From there, a woman could be heard screaming for news of her son. This same facility was at the center of an investigation for misappropriation of European funds, where the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, did business and where migrants were served rotten food — “pig slop,” Catanzaro prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said.
Coffins line the basketball court.
It all comes back, like a shadow. There is no justice or peace.
In the pediatrics ward of Crotone hospital, there is a little Afghan girl. She is the one who told Sister Loredana about the moments before the shipwreck: “The crew were throwing the boys overboard. The boys disappeared in the waves.”
They thought they were safe. Coffins line the basketball court in Crotone’s sports hall. There are 74 by 9 p.m. Some large, some smaller and white. They are all open, for forensic photographs. They take fingerprints and a DNA sample to help identify the bodies. It is the names and surnames we are missing. These are the lives of others. More useless words of outrage will be spoken here, at what is yet another funeral for Italy's future.
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