LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Italian divers faced harrowing scenes as they worked against the clock on Monday to recover bodies from the wreck of a boat packed with African migrants which sank off the southern island of Lampedusa last week.
As search teams took advantage of a break in the bad weather which interrupted work at the weekend, they pulled 17 more bodies from the wreck submerged in more than 40 metres of water, bringing the total number of bodies recovered to 211.
More than 300 people are feared drowned in Thursday’s disaster, one of the worst single incidents involving economic migrants and refugees attempting the perilous sea crossing from northern Africa to Europe.
“We found a whole row of bodies that were inside and outside of the wreck,” said police diver Riccardo Nobile. “We tried to recover those that we could and we pulled them up in the time that we had remaining, but it was very little time.”
Because of its depth, divers are only able to remain on the wreck for a few minutes at a time and the recovery work has been slow. All the bodies from around the ship and on deck have now been recovered, leaving dozens still inside the vessel.
“Some we have found with their arms outstretched. We try not to notice this kind of thing too much because otherwise the job is too difficult,” Nobile said.
“We can see a woman’s hair floating out of a broken porthole but we haven’t been able to get to her.”
The boat, carrying around 500 mainly Eritrean and Somali migrants, capsized and sank, throwing hundreds into the water. Only 155 survivors were rescued.
After rough seas at the weekend held up recovery of scores of bodies trapped in the submerged wreck, the weather early on Monday was fine. But officials said stormy conditions were expected later in the day.
“I‘m sure that the most difficult part of the operations is starting now,” said Coast Guard diver Rocco Pilon. “Technically it will be much more challenging.”
Lampedusa, a tiny island halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, has become one of the main entry points for clandestine migrants from Africa into southern Europe, with tens of thousands arriving in unsafe and overcrowded boats over recent years.
Thousands have died attempting the crossing, and the decades-long problem has been exacerbated this year by thousands of refugees fleeing civil war in Syria.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is due to visit on Wednesday to discuss joint action on the refugee crisis following calls from Italian politicians for more help from the European Union.
In the short term, the government has proposed setting up “humanitarian corridors” able to identify more quickly the vessels making dangerous sea passage so that they can be rescued.
However, a breakdown in security in many areas of Libya, the point of departure for the doomed boat, has made it difficult to set up a working system of controls with local authorities.
Boats have continued to arrive in southern Italy, with one carrying around 350 refugees from Syria reported to have landed in Syracuse in southeastern Sicily on Monday. (Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; writing By James Mackenzie; editing by Mike Collett-White)