ROME – A boat carrying nearly 500 Eritrean and Somali migrants capsized early Thursday off the coast of the Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, leaving more than 100 fatalities and 200 missing.
Accounts from survivors indicate the migrants fell into the sea when the boat, which departed from Libya’s coast, caught fire and capsized. Some of the victims were trapped under the vessel.
Some have suggested the blaze may have been caused by a short-circuit, while others say the immigrants decided to set off a flare to attract passing ships.
Footage broadcast on Italian television showed dramatic scenes of body bags piled up at the island’s port and rescue workers rushing to provide assistance to survivors.
“We don’t know where to put the survivors or the dead,” Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini said.
The island’s migrant processing center has capacity for only around 300 people, but is currently holding 1,350, including more than 460 migrants who arrived in another boat overnight.
“Enough! What are we waiting for? What’s happening in Lampedusa is a non-stop horror,” Nicolini said.
The accident, in which two pregnant women and three children were among the drowning victims, has once again brought the illegal immigration issue to center stage.
Survivors of the tragedy, meanwhile, accused the crews of three fishing boats of not assisting the shipwreck victims when they were stranded at sea.
Pope Francis, who has repeatedly expressed concern about illegal immigration and chose the island of Lampedusa as the site of his first papal visit, expressed his condolences and termed the sinking a “disgrace.”