ROME — A ship carrying African migrants to Europe caught fire and capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday, killing at least 94 people as it spilled hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said. Over 150 people were rescued but some 200 others were still unaccounted-for.
It was one of the deadliest accidents in recent times during the notoriously perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing from Africa for migrants seeking a new life in the European Union.
"We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances," Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on the island, told Radio 24. He gave the death toll of 94 but told Sky TG24 he expected that to rise as search operations continued.
"It's an immense tragedy," said Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini, adding that the dead included at least one child of about 3 and a pregnant woman.
Blue, white and black tarps covered the bodies at the port.
Coast guard ships, local fishing boats and helicopters from across the region were combing the waters trying to find survivors, said coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla. The boat left from Tripoli with migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Di Milla said.
Antonio Candela, the government's health commissioner for Palermo, said 159 people had been rescued, but the boat is believed to have been carrying as many as 500 people, the LaPresse news agency reported.
Nicolini said the ship had caught fire after those on board set off flares so it would be seen by passing ships. The ship apparently then capsized, spilling the passengers into the sea near Conigli island.
Lampedusa is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland — a mere 70 miles (113 kilometers) off the coast of Tunisia — and is the frequent destination for smugglers' boats.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano canceled his appointments Thursday and headed to Italy's southernmost island to oversee the rescue operations. Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July, quickly sent condolences.
It 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.
Hundreds of migrants reach Italy's shores every day, particularly during the summer when seas are usually calmer. They are processed in centers, screened for asylum and often sent back home. Those who aren't usually melt into the general public and make their way to northern Europe, where immigrant communities are bigger and better organized. In Italy, migrants can only work legally if they have a work permit and contract before they arrive.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of the year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012.
It's still a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy, especially through Lampedusa, during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011.
The numbers, though, have spiked in recent weeks, particularly with Syrian arrivals.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013 for migrants arriving in Italy and Malta, and a total of 500 for all of 2012, based on interviews with survivors. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.