SICULIANA, Sicily — A Sudanese man who survived the capsizing of a heavily overcrowded smugglers boat off Libya recounted Friday how the vessel tipped over when fellow migrants heard the voice of approaching rescuers and rushed above deck, leaving hundreds of people foundering in the Mediterranean.
When the boat overturned, Mohammed Ali found himself underneath the hull, but somehow emerged and knew he survived when he "saw the sun." Because he doesn't know how to swim, he couldn't save a friend who perished in the sea, he added.
The 28-year-old was one of 562 migrants rescued Wednesday by the navy, which also recovered five bodies. He spoke to The Associated Press in Sicily outside a center where he and other migrants are sheltered while their identities are checked for their requests for asylum.
Ali said smugglers' ignored warnings the boat was overcrowded.
"The smugglers assured us it will be a very safe trip," said Ali. "The captain talked to him, 'It's too many people, stop bringing more people," said Ali. "'The ship won't be safe.' They didn't listen to him."
He said he paid 1,500 euros (about $1,700) and waited two months in Libya for the chance to board a smugglers' boat in hopes he would reach Italian shores, and eventually London.
The smugglers took advantage of a spell of calm seas and warm weather in the Mediterranean waters between their base in Libya and Italy. In all some 8,000 migrants were rescued this week in dozens of operations coordinated by the Italian coast guard. That includes more than 1,900 migrants plucked to safety on Friday.
Speaking slowly in English, Ali said the wooden boat he was on left Libyan shores at 3 a.m. Wednesday and "after one or two hours, it began to flip left and right because the passengers were moving too much."
He recalled during the voyage feeling "scared, scared, and I want to be saved and looking for any ship, any ship to save us."
After the rescue, the navy boat's commander would recount how he tried, repeatedly to convince the migrants to sit still.
But, said, Ali, the desperation to survive propelled many below deck to rush above deck when the rescue operation began.
"The people below can't see nothing, can't see nothing, but when they heard, they started coming up....They wanted to be saved, too. When they came up, the ship started to flip."
Ali marveled when he was shown for the first time the dramatic navy video of the boat heaving ever more to one side as passengers scrambled to the top while others flung themselves or fell into the sea and tried, often futilely to swim.
"The ship flipped and the people are sank, many people all crying for help, all panicking. At this moment I was under the boat," Ali said, pointing to the video.
Somehow he emerged from under the overturned boat. "Then I saw the sun" and I knew I had survived, Ali said.
"I can't swim actually. After the boat sank, I tried to swim" amid the bodies, Ali said. "My friends, one of them drowned. I saw him near to me. You couldn't do nothing. I can't swim. If I tried to save him I would drown with him."