A ship carrying African migrants toward Italy caught fire and capsized off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa Thursday, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said. Ninety-four bodies were recovered and more than 200 people were unaccounted for.
Pietro Bartolo, the top health official on Lampedusa, said Thursday he expected the toll to rise as search operations continue. He spoke to Sky TG24.
It was one of the deadliest accidents in recent times during the notoriously perilous crossing from Africa for migrants seeking a new life in the European Union.
In an indication of the scale of the unfolding tragedy, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano canceled his appointments Thursday and headed to Lampedusa to oversee the rescue operations first-hand. Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July, quickly sent his condolences.
“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.
The migrants were from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, the coast guard said.
The boat is believed to have been carrying as many as 500 people.
Coast guard ships and helicopters from across the region, as well as local fishing boats were on the scene trying to find survivors, said coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla.
Mayor 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.