What we know of the fatal disaster
“Italy here we come!” cheered the young men, in Urdu and Pashto, as they filmed themselves riding a boat in clear blue waters.
They were among about 180 migrants – Afghans, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians, Somalis and others – who left Turkey in hopes of a better or simply safer life in Europe.
Days later, dozens were dead. So far, 70 bodies have been recovered from the Feb. 26 shipwreck near the small beach town of Steccato di Cutro, but only 80 survivors have been found, indicating the death toll was higher. On Sunday, firefighters divers spotted another body in the Ionian Sea and were working to bring it ashore, state television said.
The tragedy has highlighted the lesser-known migratory route from Turkey to Italy. It also highlighted the hardening Italian and European migration policies, which since 2015 have shifted from search and rescue to border surveillance. Questions are also being asked of the Italian government why the coast guard was only deployed when it was too late.
Based on court documents, testimonies from survivors and family members, and statements from authorities, the AP has reconstructed what is known about the events leading up to the shipwreck and the unanswered questions.
The fateful journey
In the early hours of Wednesday, February 22, the migrants – including dozens of families with small children – boarded a pleasure boat on a beach near Izmir after a truck journey from Istanbul and a forest traversed on foot.
They left from the coast. But just three hours into their journey, the ship suffered an engine failure. Still on the high seas, an old wooden gulet – a traditional Turkish boat – arrived as a replacement.
The smugglers and their assistants told the migrants to hide below decks as they continued west. Without life jackets or chairs, they crammed onto the ground, going out for air or to relieve themselves, only momentarily. Survivors said the second boat also had engine problems and stopped several times along the way.
Three days later, on Saturday, February 25 at 10:26 p.m., a European Union Border and Coast Guard aircraft patrolling the Ionian Sea spotted a boat heading for the Italian coast. The agency, known as Frontex, said the ship “showed no signs of distress” and was navigating at 6 knots, with “good” buoyancy.
Frontex sent an email to Italian authorities at 11:03 PM reporting one person on the upper deck and possibly more people below, detected by thermal cameras. There were no life jackets to be seen. The email also stated that a satellite phone call had been made from the boat to Turkey.
In response to Frontex’s sighting, the case was classified as a “maritime police activity”. Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, or financial police, which also has a border and customs role, sent two patrols to “intercept the ship”.
As the Turkish boat approached Italy’s Calabrian coast on Saturday night, some of the migrants on the boat were allowed to message relatives informing them of their imminent arrival and release. the compensation of 8,000 euros that was agreed with the smugglers.
The men operating the boat told frightened passengers to wait a few more hours before disembarking to avoid being caught, according to survivors’ testimonies to investigators.
At 03:48 on Sunday, February 26, the ships of the financial police returned to base, having not reached the boat due to bad weather. Police contacted the Coast Guard to ask if they had vessels at sea “in case a critical situation arises,” according to communications obtained by Italy’s ANSA agency and confirmed by AP. The Coast Guard replied no. “Okay, it was just to inform you,” a police officer said before hanging up.
Just minutes later, around 4 a.m., local fishermen on the southern coast of Italy saw lights in the darkness. People desperately waved their mobile phone flashlights from a boat stuck on a sandbar.
According to survivors, the suspected smugglers grabbed black tubes, possibly life jackets, and jumped into the water to save themselves. Waves kept beating against the barrel until it suddenly tore apart. The sound was similar to that of an explosion, survivors said. People fell into the icy water, trying to grab onto anything they could. Many could not swim.
Italian police arrived at the scene at 4:30 a.m., at the same time that the Coast Guard says it received its first distress calls related to the boat. It took the Coast Guard another hour to get there. By then, bodies were already being pulled from the water with people screaming for help while others tried to resuscitate the victims.
The young victims
On board the boat were dozens of young children. Hardly anyone survived. The body of a 3-year-old was recovered on Saturday.
Among those who lived was a Syrian father and his eldest child, but not his wife and three other children. The body of his youngest, age 5, was still missing four days later.
Shahida Raza, an athlete from Pakistan, died in the tragedy. She had hoped to reach Europe so that she could eventually bring her disabled son home for the medical treatment he could not access.
An Afghan man drove up from Germany looking for his 15-year-old cousin who had contacted his family and said he was in Italy. But the boy also died before he set foot on land.
The uncle asked that his name and that of his cousin not be published as he had yet to inform the boy’s father.
The baby-faced teen had shared a video with his family during his sea voyage, with what appeared to be nice weather.
His mother had died two years ago and when the Taliban came back to power, the family fled to Iran. The boy later traveled to Turkey, from where he tried several times to enter the EU.
“Europe is the only place where you can at least be respected as a human being,” he said. “Everyone knows it’s 100% dangerous, but they’re gambling with their lives because they know if they make it, maybe they can live.”
Prosecutors have launched two inquiries – one into the suspected smugglers and another to see if Italian authorities have incurred delays in responding to the migrant boat.
A Turkish man and two Pakistani men, among the 80 survivors, have been arrested on suspicion of smugglers or their accomplices. A fourth suspect, a Turkish national, is on the run.
Particular attention has been paid to why the Coast Guard was never sent to check on the boat.
A day after the shipwreck, Frontex told AP it had seen a “heavily overcrowded” boat and reported it to Italian authorities. However, in a second statement, Frontex clarified that only one person was visible on deck, but that the thermal cameras – “and other signs” – indicated there may be more people below.
In an interview with AP, retired Coast Guard admiral Vittorio Alessandro said Coast Guard boats are made to withstand rough seas and they should have gone out. “If not to rescue, then at least to check if the boat needed help.”
Alessandro added that the photos released by Frontex showed that the water level was high, suggesting that the boat was heavy.
The Coast Guard said Frontex alerted Italian authorities responsible for “law enforcement” and copied the Italian Coast Guard “just for their awareness”. Frontex said it is up to national authorities to classify events as search and rescue.
“The matter is simple in its tragic nature: no emergency communications from Frontex have reached our authorities. We were not warned that this boat was in danger of sinking,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Saturday.
“I wonder if there is anyone in this country who honestly believes that the government has deliberately allowed more than 60 people to die, including some children,” she added.
However, Alessandro lamented how over the years the Coast Guard’s activities – which previously took place even far away in international waters – have gradually been curtailed by successive governments.
“Rescue operations at sea should not be replaced by police operations. Salvation must prevail,” he said.
In an interview with AP, Eugenio Ambrosi, chief of staff of the UN’s International Organization for Migration, stressed the need for a more proactive approach. search and rescue strategyat European level.
“We can look and discuss whether the (boat) was spotted, not spotted, or the authorities were called and did not respond,” he said. “But we wouldn’t be asking this question if there was a search and rescue mechanism in the Mediterranean.”