ROME (AP) — It was the third ship of the night to head toward the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa packed to the brim with migrants seeking a better life in Europe. The first, filled with Syrians, arrived about 10 p.m. The second, carrying Eritreans, slipped in at 2 a.m.
In the dark of night, hundreds of men, women and children who didn't know how to swim were flung into the sea about a half-mile from Lampedusa. Between 450 and 500 people were believed to be on board; health commissioner Antonio Candela said only 159 were rescued.
"We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances," said Pietro Bartolo, chief of Lampedusa health services. Bartolo, speaking to Italy's Radio 24, put the death toll at 94 but said it would certainly rise as search operations continued. Italian coast guard divers later reported seeing another 20 bodies near the ship, which by then was lying on the ocean floor.
It was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing that thousands make every year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head to take people to Europe aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests or other safety features.
Lampedusa, 70 miles (113 kilometers) off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration. "It's an immense tragedy," Mayor Giusi Nicolini said.
The deaths of so many may have come down to the lack of a cellphone. The 20-meter (66-foot) boat left from Tripoli with migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Italian coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla told The Associated Press.
It nearly reached its target, getting as far as nearby Conigli island before it began taking on water, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters. Usually, smugglers have mobile or satellite phones to call for help when they near the shore or run into trouble. Instead, someone on this boat set fire to a piece of material to attract the attention of passing ships, he said. The blaze spread to the ship itself, and when panicked passengers fled to one side to avoid the fire, the boat capsized.
Women and children apparently fared the worst. Only three of the boat's estimated 100 women were rescued — and none of the 10 children believed on board were saved, said Simona Moscarelli, a legal expert for the International Organization for Migration in Rome. Two of the dead were pregnant.
"Most of them can't swim," she told the AP. "Only the strongest survived." Italian coast guard ships, local fishing boats and helicopters from across the region combed the waters for survivors. Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens into Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicolored tarps on its docks.
Coast guard divers found the wreck on the sea floor under 40 meters (130 feet) of water, Cmdr. Floriana Segreto told the AP. "At least 20 bodies were seen around the boat," she said, adding that the divers were waiting for the weather to improve before they could enter the boat itself.
Survivors packed Lampedusa's detention center for migrants along with those from the two boats that landed safely. Over 1,000 people were squeezed into a space built for 250, Moscarelli said. Medical workers scrambled to attend to the injured.
Migrants who arrive in Lampedusa are processed in centers, screened for asylum and often sent back home. Some slip into the general public and make their way to northern Europe, seeking to blend into larger immigrant communities. In Italy, migrants can work legally only if they have a work permit and a contract before they arrive — a policy pushed through by Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party.
Thursday's disaster was the second shipwreck this week off Italy: On Monday, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few meters (yards) from shore. A host of Italian officials on Thursday demanded that the 28-nation EU do more to combat smuggling operations and help border countries like Italy.
"Let us hope that the European Union realizes this isn't an Italian problem but a European one," Alfano said as he headed to Lampedusa to oversee the recovery operation. In a tweet, EU Home Affairs Minister Cecilia Malstrom called for a redoubling of efforts to "fight smugglers exploiting human despair."
Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July to bemoan the frequent deaths of migrants, sent his condolences. "It is shameful!" he said during an audience at the Vatican. While it was the deadliest such incident off Italy of late, Moscarelli said there had been greater losses of life farther out at sea and off the Libyan coast in recent years.
Hundreds of migrants reach Italy's shores every day, particularly during the summer when the seas are usually calmer. According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of this year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. The numbers have spiked in recent weeks, particularly with Syrian arrivals.
Still, they are a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy — many through Lampedusa — during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011. Before Thursday's tragedy, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013 for migrants arriving in Italy and Malta.
Last year, that route saw 500 deaths.
Frank Jordans contributed from Berlin and Carlo Piovano contributed from London.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield