ROME (AP) – As many as 64 migrants, including a mother whose 3-year-old child desperately clung to her, are feared dead after a traffickers’ overcrowded rubber dinghy from Libya started sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, officials said on Monday.
The Italian coast guard rescued 86 people from the boat hours after it started sinking on Saturday morning due to a puncture. Specially trained rescue divers leapt into the water to pull dozens to safety, including those who managed to stay aboard the half-submerged dinghy as well as others already flailing in the cold waters around it. The bodies of eight dead women were also recovered.
Since trafficking dinghies are often crammed with far more than 100 migrants, fears quickly arose that dozens more could be missing in the sinking. UN officials said that accounts from survivors bore out those fears.
An Italian coast guard search that went through the night didn’t find any more survivors or corpses.
Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said in tweet that survivors interviewed by the agency in Catania, Sicily, after they arrived on a rescue ship said 150 people had been aboard the dinghy when it set out from the coast of Libya.
“Sixty-four migrants lost their life in the shipwreck (which) occurred last Saturday,” Di Giacomo said, explaining that “probably 56 missing migrants” were lost at sea.
Catania Mayor Enzo Bianco told Italian Radio Radicale that among the survivors was a child who lost her mother.
“I watched a 3-year-old girl while she was starting to play at the port here. She was saved, grabbed at the last second by the coast guard in the sea,” the mayor said. “She was clinging to her mother and she saw her drown.” Bianco said the child is now with her aunt, who was among the survivors.
The dinghy, half-submerged, had been spotted by an aircraft from a European naval mission combatting migrant trafficking.
A doctor aboard the ship said some of the survivors had cardiopulmonary resuscitation aboard.
“We can proudly say that many among those we resuscitated are now alive,” said Maria Rita Agliozzo, a physician from the Order of Malta who, along with a paramedic, was aboard the coast guard rescue ship. “Unfortunately some of them did not make it.” She said among the survivors are three children, who are orphans, and in good condition.
“We still have to reconstruct their personal stories, because the children are shocked and didn’t answer our questions. It’s a step-by-step process, hopefully they will work through what happened and later provide more information,” Agliozzo said.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have been rescued at sea and taken to southern Italian ports in the last few years, including nearly 119,000 last year. Another 3,100 drowned along the way in 2017, the IOM says.
They include refugees fleeing wars or persecution who hope to receive asylum as well as economic migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, who aren’t eligible to be granted permission to live in Europe.
Di Giacomo couldn’t immediately be reached for further details on the survivors of the Jan. 6 sinking.