The captain of the Maltese army vessel that was first to reach the migrants capsized off Lampedusa described the rescue as one of the toughest in his career at sea.
“I have been doing this sort of work for 10 years but this was one of the most difficult operations for me personally... there was a large number of people who were floating motionless,” Major Russel Caruana told timesofmalta.com shortly after his crew disembarked 143 survivors this morning at around 8am.
“It was very tough, partly because of the great distance that we were operating from (120 miles) and the rough weather, but also because there were so many people in the sea. We have done many operations of this sort but this situation was more dramatic than usual,” he said.
His patrol boat, the P61, was the first on the scene, south east of Malta. A crew reached the people on site with a dinghy and launched a life raft which on its own, rescued some 60 people.
Eventually, the Maltese vessel took aboard some 150 survivors but some, including a mother and her infant, were evacuated via helicopter to Lampedusa due to their urgent medical condition. The AFM also brought to Malta four dead people - two toddlers, an 11-year-old boy and a woman.
BODY OF 3-YEAR OLD GIRL RECOVERED THIS MORNING
Only the body of a three-year-old girl was recovered during the search which continued this morning.
Among the survivors, believed to be all Syrian refugees, is a month-old baby and a couple, who lost track of their three children.
“There are two sets of parents who had children but while one couple saw their children being taken on board an Italian vessel, the others have no idea whether their children are dead or alive,” a source with access to the migrants told timesofmalta.com.
They are currently being interviewed by the police as part of initial processing. However, social workers, who were accompanied by Social Solidarity Minister Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca were also given access to the refugees.
The death toll according to some estimates is likely to exceed 50. But this will be established later in the day as more bodies are recovered by Italian and Maltese patrol boats on the scene some 65 miles south of Lampedusa.
The refugees interviewed so far could not say how many people were aboard but it is estimated that there more than 225 migrants. 56 were picked up by Italian boats.
They said they left Libya and paid between $3,000 and $4,000 per person for a place on the boat.
Asked if he could ascertain why the boat had capsized, Major Caruana said it was too early.
“That is still being established. It could have been the case that too many people were crowded in one area of the boat, tipping its balance and causing it to capsize. There could be other factors but it’s too early to determine the cause,” he said.
TWO OTHER RESCUE OPERATIONS UNDERWAY BY ITALIAN NAVY
Two other boats, one with 183 passengers and the other with 83, were rescued last night off Lampedusa.
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