Survivors say the boat stranded off the Italian island of Lampedusa had absolutely no room on deck. Bodies of victims were found in the hold below, and showed signs of struggle.
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LAMPEDUSA - The latest horror story off the coast of this tiny Italian island is somehow more awful than the rest. Of the innumerable migrants trying to make the seaward journey from North Africa to Lampedusa, and a hoped-for ticket into Europe, perhaps tens of thousands have died over the past decade. Yet these latest 25 deaths tell the all too familiar tale with a chilling new twist.
The 24 men and one woman were found early Monday in the tiny hold of a boat that had left from Tripoli, Libya, carrying almost 300 immigrants. Authorities believe they died from asphyxiation.
At first, when the Italian Coast Guard rescued the boat 35 miles off of Lampedusa, they found 271 people alive, squeezed one on the top of the other up on deck, with everyone apparently safe. "I checked the hold, to see if there was someone else. Then I saw them. It was terrible," said a member of the rescue team.
How did it happen? Lampedusa doctor Pietro Bartòlo was the first to notice bruises and fractures on many of the bodies. Authorities went on to conclude that the 25 fought to escape from the cramped quarters in which they'd been squeezed.
Survivors have confirmed the sequence of events. "They screamed, banged against the trap-door, begged to get out," says one of the survivors. "But on the deck, there was no room." Another woman survivor, who was carried to the emergency room for dehydration, said there was no alternative. "Where could they have stayed? We were already packed in."
According to Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the bodies "presented clear signs of violence." Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation.
Drowning, thirst and exposure are typically what claim the most victims when these immigrant boats stall in the sea. Arrivals have spiked after the unrest this year in North Africa. The blog Fortress Europe has tallied 1,674 people who have died or disappeared in the waters between North Africa and Italy in 2011.
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