LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Choppy seas prevented divers on Friday from recovering more bodies of migrants who died in a shipwreck off Sicily that has killed an estimated 300, in one of the worst disasters of Europe’s immigration crisis.
Rescue teams have so far recovered 111 bodies and expect to find more than 100 others in and around the wreck, submerged in 47 meters of water less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the shore of the southern island of Lampedusa.
After 155 people were pulled from the water alive on Thursday, strong winds and meter-high waves made it impossible for 40 divers to safely collect bodies. There was little hope of finding more survivors from the almost 500 passengers estimated to have been on board.
“Though the bad sea conditions persist, our guys are ready to go down if a window opens up that makes it safe for them,” coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini told Reuters. The swell is forecast to rise on Saturday and slowly diminish from Sunday.
Though the tiny island takes in thousands of immigrants every year and there have been similar wrecks in the past, residents were shaken by the sheer size of the tragedy.
Lampedusans observed a day of national mourning, closing gas stations, restaurants and shops. After an evening mass in honor of the victims, hundreds took part in a silent candlelit march.
A man holding a cross made from the wood of a wrecked boat led the procession past a banner that said: “We want to welcome the living, not the dead.”
“Stop! There are no excuses for indifference” read a banner carried by children.
Some of the nearly 1,000 immigrants now on the island also took part, including 20-year-old Eritrean Afwork, who said he had made a two-day boat journey from Libya a month ago and was now seeking refugee status.
“They were our brothers and sisters. We are very angry. We are very said,” he said.
A black flag bearing the word “shame” was flying over the port, close to a cemetery of rotting boats used by migrants to make past crossings from North Africa.
Lampedusa, a tiny fishing and tourist island halfway between Sicily and the coasts of Tunisia and Libya, has borne the brunt of a crisis which over the years has seen tens of thousands of migrants arrive in unsafe and overcrowded vessels.
The boat, carrying mainly Eritrean and Somalis, sank in the early hours of Thursday after fuel caught fire, triggering a panicked rush to one side of the vessel, which capsized.
“I could see dozens of hands and heads, and we heard cries for help,” said fisherman Vito Fiorino, who helped save 47 people.
“We alerted the port authority by radio and we started to rescue them, using a life preserver tied to a line attached to the fishing boat.”
Pietro Bartolo, chief doctor at the island’s clinic, told Reuters survivors were exhausted and dehydrated.
“They are very fragile emotionally, and not only because of the shipwreck, but because they are survivors of terrible experiences. Many are fleeing wars and violence in their home countries, and are weary from a long voyage of suffering.”
“It took me five months to reach Italy,” said the 41-year-old Eritrean Abrahal, a survivor from another boat that arrived a few days ago. “I paid $1,600 (to the smugglers) and they put me on an old crate.”
On a visit to Assisi, Pope Francis, who has drawn attention to the plight of migrants, said the deaths in Lampedusa underlined the desperation of the poor in a “savage world”.
“Today is a day for crying,” he said.
In the past 25 years, more than 19,000 people have died trying to reach Italy from North Africa, according to data of known shipwrecks. Many more are likely to have perished in unknown ones.
The disaster has renewed pressure from Italy for more help from the European Union to combat the decades-old migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s centre-left Democratic Party called for an urgent meeting of the European Council to agree on setting up special “humanitarian corridors” to provide protection for migrant boats.
It has also fuelled a growing political row in which the anti-immigration Northern League party has called for the resignation of Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, who was born in Democratic Republic of Congo.
It said her call for better integration of migrants into Italy, including revised citizenship laws, had “sent dangerous signals” to would-be migrants.
The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, rejected calls by Northern League politician Matteo Salvini for boats to be turned back because they are full of “illegal immigrants”.
“These are refugees. We have a duty to take them in. They must be respected,” she told Reuters. “The League’s message is a virus that is contaminating people with hate. In a moment like this, they can’t keep repeating this crap.”
Controversy surrounds Italian immigration law, which requires repatriation of illegal migrants and which has led to the seizing of fishing boats that have saved lives of migrants.
“This immigration law is killing people,” said Enzo, a 44-year-old fisherman in Lampedusa.
Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci and Naomi O'Leary in Rome and Philip Pullella in Assisi; Writing by Steve Scherer and James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Roche