LAMPEDUSA — “Follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fishers of men.” A disturbing parallel is evoked from this famous passage of the Gospel of Matthew, as nets tossed into the sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa fill up with the bodies of men... of women and children.
After the latest tragic end Thursday to the journey toward Europe of would-be immigrants, the Coast Guard was working into the night, unloading onto the docks body after body: dozens and dozens of victims, with their eyes wide open, arms rigid, bellies swollen.
In bags of green, blue, white and silver — otherwise cheerful colors — bodies are lined up side-by-side on the dock in Lampedusa's main port. On the very same dock, in fact, Pope Francis just weeks ago had made headlines around the world by greeting migrants who had arrived to the refugee center. They sang, shook the Pope’s hand and told their stories of fleeing from hunger and war.
Now, their brothers and sisters are here, having died in the turquoise sea just off Coniglio Island, a paradise for tourists, whose beach is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The victims are mostly Eritreans and Somalis who left three days ago from the Libyan port of Misurata. At 8 a.m. Thursday, the only people on these crystalline waters were fishermen when the trawler ferrying the migrants drowned in flames.
Some 500 men, women, and children were crammed into this vessel, barely 20 meters long, when somebody lit a a blanket on fire, in an attempt to send an S.O.S. as none of the phones on board had any signal. Moments later, the keel's petrol turned the boat into a funeral pyre. Screams, prayers, tears, and panic followed as people rushed to the other side of the boat to escape the flames.
The trawler then capsized and sunk, throwing some passengers into the water and trapping others. In just a few short minutes, this warm stretch of Mediterranean turned into the river Styx. The living tangled together among the dead, hands raised to call for help, keeping afloat on already drowned heads, wreckage, and bags.
The fishermen were the first to arrive, to rescue the survivors — and also the first to raise questions. As the 47 survivors he rescued disembarked at the dock, one man shouted: “Why did it take the Coast Guard an hour to arrive? How is it that they have such sophisticated means to pinpoint boats thousands of kilometers off the coast, yet they failed to see a fire close by and come quickly to rescue the survivors?”
The boat was indeed incredibly close to the shore, just 800 meters — and sometimes rescue efforts are as far away as Malta or the African coast. Questions that will linger.
The first count was 10 bodies. But the number would quickly multiply as Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini held back her tears: “The sea is full. The sea is full of bodies.”
As the sun went down from the shore, boats could be seen all around, rising and falling on choppy waters with their passengers: seven Coast Guard boats, others from the Guardia di Finanza, national police, fire brigade, and even private boats. All of them searching for, and finding, more and more bodies to pull up.
By Thursday night, there were 127 coffins lined up in the hangar of the airport and 155 survivors in the reception center. But, according to those rescued, there were at least 500 people on board. That leaves more than 200 missing. At least 100 were located on the seabed, 37 meters below, where the boat sank at noon on Thursday. “There are so many women and children,” said the divers, who resumed operations Friday.
Meanwhile in Lampedusa, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano and Assembly Speaker Laura Boldrini were among the political leaders who'd arrived. Pope Francis declared his horror at what has happened, as did Italy's President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano.
Friday saw a statement of national mourning announced, yet to the chorus of indignation, of solidarity, of appeals to Europe about migrants like these, together with the words of these survivors, raise the spectre of a much more specific disgrace. “There were three fishing boats, we asked them for help, but they kept going," said one survivor, and confirmed by others. "They let us die.”
Interior Minister Alfano played this down, saying, “They didn’t see them, otherwise they would have intervened. The Italians are big-hearted people.”
Prosecutors in the region have already set wheels in motion, identifying and arresting a young Tunisian among the survivors for being one of the human traffickers. The emergency plan is to transfer the refugees already in the reception center, which risks bursting at the seams, to another after the arrival of another 463 migrants on Thursday night — who all arrived safe and sound.
In the meantime, the weather is changing and the sea is rising. The fishermen on the port sniff the wind and say a storm is coming. Dawn was bound to bring light to the island, and more bodies.