Alessandro Fucarini, Associated Press
ROME — 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.
The third never reached shore.
At least 114 people died and scores more were missing late Thursday after a crowded fishing boat carrying African migrants from Tripoli caught fire, flipped over and sank, Italian officials said.
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, by then 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.
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 people 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.
The woman and children aboard apparently fared the worst. Only three of the 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 at 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 migrant 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.
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