Shipwreck off Italy: Stadium filled with coffins of migrants
ROME (AP) — Wailing and other expressions of grief echoed through a sports complex in southern Italy as public viewing began Wednesday of the closed coffins holding the bodies of dozens of migrants who died in a shipwreck.
Meanwhile, the search by air and sea to spot any of the many believed still to be missing continued for a fourth day. Italian state TV and the LaPresse news agency said a child’s body was the latest of three corpses to be recovered, raising the confirmed death toll to 67.
Emerging in the aftermath have been conflicting or not completely synchronized accounts by authorities of what was known about the vessel in the last hours of its voyage before the shipwreck.
The migrants’ wooden boat, crammed with passengers who paid smugglers for the voyage from Turkey, broke apart in rough water just off a beach in Calabria before dawn on Sunday.
Eighty people survived the shipwreck. According to survivor accounts, the boat had held 170 or more passengers when it set out from the Turkish port of Izmir a few days earlier.
The coffins — brown ones for adults and white ones for children — were arranged in neat rows on the sports facility’s wooden floor in the city of Crotone. Atop each coffin was a bouquet of flowers. Some people added stuffed animals, another a toy truck, on the coffins of children.
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Fewer than half of the coffins bore a name — the others were identified by numbers indicating the order in which rescuers found the bodies, pending eventual official identification.
Among the coffins without a name was the smallest one. It held the remains of a child younger than a year, the Italian news agency ANSA said.
Survivors of Sunday’s wreck and relatives of the people who died crumpled over in grief as they sat down to caress their loved one’s coffin.
Mourning also took place thousands of kilometers (miles) from the site of the shipwreck. In Pakistan, people were mourning the death of the country’s woman field hockey player Shahida Raza in the tragedy. Raza was from Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province.
According to family accounts, some passengers had called family in Europe and excitedly reported that they could see the Italian mainland — about an hour before the boat smashed up against a reef or sandbank in the Ionian Sea.
When the relatives heard about the shipwreck, many drove from Germany, northern Italy and other European points down to Cutro, the beach town where many of the corpses washed up and some of the survivors came ashore.
While many smugglers launch boats filled with migrants from the shores of Libya and Tunisia across the central Mediterranean toward southern Italy or Italian islands, others use a route beginning in Turkey that crosses the eastern Mediterranean and aims to reach either Calabria in the “toe” of the peninsula, Puglia, the “heel” of the mainland, or eastern Sicily.
Viewing the coffins along with victims’ families were the mayors of nearby Italian towns, the local bishop and imam, and townspeople.
Crotone’s prosecutor is investigating the dynamics of the tragedy, including involvement by suspected accomplices of the smugglers among the survivors.
Late Tuesday, the Italian Coast Guard issued a statement with its first account of the hours leading up to the shipwreck in an apparent bid to defend how Italian authorities handled the case.
The statement said that on Saturday evening a surveillance aircraft operated by Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency, spotted a boat in the Ionian Sea that appeared to be navigating “regularly” and exhibiting “good conditions of buoyancy” with only one person visible on deck.
Italy’s interior minister has told lawmakers that the boat was at that point some 40 nautical miles (46 miles or 75 kilometers) from Italy’s coastline, and has insisted there were no fall-downs in how Italian authorities handled the case.
An Italian border police boat already at sea set out to intercept the boat, the statement said. On Sunday, in the first hours after the shipwreck, Italian authorities had said two border police boats were dispatched but couldn’t reach the migrant vessel due to adverse sea conditions.
The coast guard said that at about 4:30 a.m. Sunday, it received indications by phone from people on land that a boat was in danger on the coast. Carabinieri police told the coast guard the vessel had broken up.
“This is the first information of an emergency,” the coast guard statement said.
But what hasn’t been explained is why coast guard boats — larger and better equipped to deal with rescues in rough waters — weren’t dispatched.
Italy’s new opposition figure, Democratic Party leader Elly Schlein, was among lawmakers at a hearing in Parliament on Wednesday demanding that Italy’s right-wing government say why they weren’t dispatched. She is pressing for the interior minister’s resignation.
Also raising questions over the Italian coast guard account were details provided by Frontex about its sighting of the migrant vessel. Although only one person was visible on deck, a Frontex thermal camera indicated there were more people below.
The agency says it shared the information and images with Italian authorities and that it was up to them, not Frontex, to determine which cases classify as search and rescue.
AP reporter Munir Ahmed contributed from Pakistan.