ROME, Oct 3 – At least 92 people drowned and around 200 were believed missing after a boat carrying up to 500 African asylum seekers caught fire and sank off the Italian coast on Thursday, officials said.
“We have 92 dead and 151 people saved. We are looking for more survivors in the water,” a coast guard spokesman told AFP, adding that the search had been going on for more than six hours.
“We received the first alert at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) when a boat reported people in the water,” he said.
Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa island near where the incident happened, told news channel SkyTG24: “The survivors are in a state of shock”.
“They have been in the water since the early hours of the morning,” Nicolini said.
A local doctor said a three year old boy and a two year old girl were among the victims.
The accident was the latest in many drownings involving migrants travelling on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean, where thousands have died in recent years.
“The first assistance was provided by people on pleasure boats who heard the screams,” Antonino Candela, a local emergency medical worker, said.
Nicolini said the migrants had told her they lit a small fire on their boat around half a mile from the shore to attract the attention of coast guards after their vessel suffered engine failure.
The fire then spread, sowing panic on board which caused the boat to flip over and eventually sink.
Shaken survivors wrapped in thermal blankets many of them bare chested were seen arriving on the dock in images shown on Italian television, as an emergency worker broke down in tears.
The bodies were being taken to a hangar at the local airport because there was no more room in the local morgue on the remote southern Italian island, which has a population of around 6,000.
“This is a tragedy without precedent. In many years of work here I have never seen anything like this,” Pietro Bartolo, a local doctor, was quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA as saying.