Mediterranean shipwreck: Stories of tragedy emerge after 62 drown

Debris was all that was left of a wooden sailing boat that crashed against rocks in the early morning hours on Sunday, near the Italian seaside resort of Steccato di Cutro.

It had left Turkey days earlier. Witnesses say up to 200 people were on board.

But faced with rough seas, the boat sank in the Mediterranean and at least 62 people drowned in a shipwreck that has reminded the world of the worst horrors of Europe’s refugee crisis.

At least 12 children died, including a months-old baby and twin toddlers.

“It was a tragic scene,” Red Cross representative Ignazio Mangione told Al Jazeera.

“There was a mother looking for her children and all around the beach was strewn with bodies.”

Some survivors were found clad in damp clothes and on the verge of hypothermia. Others were hardly covered, their clothes torn by the force of the waves.

Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said 60 survivors were brought to the hosting centre of Isola di Capo Rizzuto, while 22 people remain in hospital.

Six children were hospitalised, including a teenage boy who was put in intensive care.

A 16-year-old from Afghanistan, who fled with his sister after the Taliban cracked down on women’s rights, swam ashore carrying his sibling.

“When he reached the beach, he realised she was dead,” Sergio Di Dato, coordinator of MSF’s response in Steccato di Cutro, said.

“He has spoken to his relatives but did not have the courage to tell them the truth.”

The boy is now receiving psychological support.

A 40-year-old man whose life was under threat in Afghanistan survived with his 14-year-old son, but the rest of his family on board drowned.

“He is guilt-ridden now,” Di Dato said, “because to save his life he lost three children – 11, 9 and 5 years old – and his wife.”

The boat left the western Turkish port of Izmir about four days before the shipwreck. It was spotted about 74km (46 miles) off the Italian coast late on Saturday by a plane operated by European Union border agency Frontex, Italian police said.

Survivors spoke of a blast before the shipwreck, but MSF said the boat likely hit a rock as no burns were reported among the injured.

Police said patrol boats and search units were sent out when the boat was spotted, but severe weather forced them to return to port.

Saving lives

The disaster has renewed a debate on how to curb migration flows to Italy and Europe and avoid similar tragedies.

Italy’s hard-right government has blamed traffickers who profit while offering refugees “the false prospect of a safe journey”.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said her government is “committed to preventing departures … by calling for maximum cooperation from the countries of departure and of origin”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday said that she felt “deeply saddened” by the loss of life, and that the bloc needs common rules to face the challenges associated with migration.

But civil society organisations denounced official responses as hypocritical.

Last week, Italy’s right-wing coalition government pushed a controversial new law through parliament; the rule forces refugee aid charities to perform only one life-saving rescue mission at a time.

MSF’s rescue vessel, the Geo Barents, has been detained and fined for allegedly failing to share required information with Italian authorities. The NGO says the contested data is only released in case of an accident and is not required under normal circumstances.

Bertotto said the government’s proposed solutions – stopping refugee boat departures and disbanding trafficking networks – were unrealistic.

Sunday’s shipwreck occurred on the Ionian route, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea connecting Italy to Greece and Turkey to the east. Charities do not operate rescue vessels in this stretch, but instead concentrate operations in the Central Mediterranean route between Italy and North Africa, which is considered the deadliest.

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