Italian divers hoped to resume the search for bodies Saturday after a Mediterranean shipwreck tragedy in which 111 African asylum-seekers have been confirmed dead and scores more are missing.
Rough seas have forced the suspension of the operation off the remote island of Lampedusa, where fishermen on Saturday laid a wreath in the water where the disaster unfolded.
“The search is still suspended,” said Leonardo Ricci, a spokesman on the island for the financial police, which also has border patrol duties.
“We have a legal but also a moral responsibility to recover all the bodies. There are hundreds of families that are waiting for news,” he said.
Divers spoke of “dozens, maybe hundreds” of bodies trapped in the wreckage, which lies on the seabed at a depth of around 40 meters (131 feet).
Ricci said there was a “preliminary plan” to raise the 20-metre long boat but emergency services were still working out how this could be done.
It is feared the final death toll could rise to close to 300, which would make this the worst ever Mediterranean refugee tragedy after a previous one in 1996 also off Italian shores claimed 283 lives.
Fishermen from the island, which has a population of just 6,000 people and is Italy’s southernmost point, took four boats out to sea on Saturday in a poignant commemoration for the drowned.
They sounded their horns and laid a wreath.
Hundreds of islanders attended mass and joined a candle-lit procession in the port town on Friday, calling for a “humanitarian corridor” to be set up in the Mediterranean to allow safer sea crossings for people fleeing war and persecution.
Italy has asked the European Union for greater assistance in stemming the influx of refugees, with 30,000 reported to have landed so far in 2013—more than four times the number for all of 2012.
Lampedusa is the main arrival point in Italy.
The tragedy has highlighted Europe’s flawed migration and asylum policy, which places an unfair burden on the countries in southern Europe where asylum-seekers first arrive, observers said.
In Italy there have also been growing calls for an overhaul of legislation against people accused of facilitating irregular immigration, a provision that critics say could penalize potential rescuers.
Meanwhile Rome mayor Ignazio Marino said the Italian capital would house the 154 survivors plucked from the waters — all Eritreans who began their crossing in the Libyan port of Misrata.
Another survivor, the boat’s 35-year-old Tunisian skipper, has been detained as prosecutors weigh criminal charges against him for multiple murders and facilitating illegal immigration.
The man had already been held in April in a previous landing and had been deported back to Tunisia in a case that observers said pointed to the role played by ruthless people-smuggling rings.
The boat left Libya with an estimated 450 to 500 people on board, survivors have been quoted as saying, and was just a few hundred meters (yards) from Lampedusa when it began taking on water.
Survivors have said three fishing boats ignored their pleas for help and they set fire to a blanket in the hope of alerting the coast guard.
The fire quickly spread, causing panic, and the boat capsized and eventually sank as its terrified passengers ran to one side and jumped into the sea.
Fishermen and tourists who were first on the scene spoke of terrifying scenes, with hundreds of heads and outstretched arms in the water, which was thick with the fuel oil that spilled from the boat.
The bodies recovered so far were being kept in an airport hangar because there was no room in the morgue and are being photographed and numbered.
As the local cemetery is already full, with many unmarked graves of migrants, they will be taken to Sicily for burial. Several towns around the city of Agrigento have offered empty plots.
Many of the survivors, which include 40 unaccompanied minors, are being housed in a badly overcrowded refugee center on the island.
Four of the more serious cases were being treated in a bigger hospital in Palermo in Sicily, including a young Eritrean woman who was said by doctors to have suffered a miscarriage.
One woman taken for dead and laid alongside other corpses on the dock spluttered back to life on Thursday when medics realized she was still barely breathing and carried out immediate resuscitation. AFP