- Rescue worker said search for survivors of migrant ship was a ‘nightmare’
- He described a ‘cemetery on the sea’ and red eyes of those killed
- Giuseppe Pomilla confronted boat’s skipper, who lied about name
- Tunisian Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, accused of being drunk by passenger
- Other survivors describe the terrifying moment the ship overturned
Hannah Roberts For Mailonline In Sicily
Claire Carter for MailOnline
13:01 EST, 21 April 2015
04:55 EST, 22 April 2015
Rescue workers have described the moment they confronted the lying ship’s captain moments after they searched a ‘cemetery in the sea’ for the bodies of hundreds of migrants who were killed in one of the Mediterranean’s worst disasters.
Around 900 men, women and children are believed to have died after their boat got into difficulty and overturned off Libyan waters, south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, shortly after midnight on Sunday.
Rescuers revealed how Tunisian skipper Mohammed Ali Malek lied to them about being responsible when they accused him over being the captain – using a fake name that he kept forgetting. The 27-year-old has since been arrested for multiple manslaughter.
Their account came as survivors broke their silence to say their feared they would die along with the friends on board the doomed boat.
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Lies: Rescuers Enrico Vitiello and Guiseppe Pomilla described how the ship’s skipper lied to them. Pomilla revealed how he was haunted by the ‘red eyes’ of those killed after drowning in the Mediterranean sea
Tunisian boat captain Mohammed Ali Malek (centre) is seen speaking to a nurse, believed to be Enrico Vitiello on an Italian coastguard ship before being arrested over the deaths of 950 migrants
Doctor Giuseppe Pomilla of the Order of Malta described the three hours he searched for the living among hundreds of dead floating corpses. He said: ‘It was like a nightmare. It was a cemetery. There were bodies everywhere you looked.
‘At first it seemed there was no one alive. It was 1am and the sea was black. With my torch I could see only two or three metres ahead of the dinghy. But it was easy to see if people were dead because when you died of asphyxia your eyes go red.
‘Everywhere was these red eyes, all young men. Most were in T-shirts and normal clothes but some were naked. Maybe the current washed their clothes away.’
Dr Pomilla said that he had immediately identified the suspected captain of the traffickers, who was pale skinned, and joked about it when he first met him on the merchant ship that had saved his life, after being called to help the stricken boat.
He added: ‘I said “You’re the trafficker then”. He said “No, no”. Then he laughed.
SAID’S STORY: ‘THEY BEAT US TO GET US ON TO THE BOAT’
Said’s ordeal began long before he was thrown into the water on Sunday night.
The 16-year-old Somalian – one of nine children – was put into the care of Sudanese traffickers last summer.
His parents were desperate for him to reach Norway, where he has relatives, so he could have a better life.
However, they couldn’t afford the first leg of the journey, so he was held prisoner by the armed smugglers for nine months on the Libyan border – having crossed the desert to reach it – while they paid off the fee.
There were many other children there, he explained, all badly treated. Many died in front of him because they didn’t have enough to eat and became sick.
Said was lucky – his parents managed to pay, and he was taken to Tripoli. But it took six days and he had to hide constantly. He was always scared of being imprisoned again.
Finally, at 11pm on April 18, Said was loaded into a rubber dinghy and taken to the fishing boat.
‘While getting onto the boat, I heard the smugglers say that they were going to try to get 1,200 onto the boat and that’s why they beat us to get us onto the boat,’ Said told Save the Children.
‘But they stopped at 800 because it was full, we couldn’t even move. There was no food or water.
‘During the night, the smugglers raised a call for help and when people saw the lights of the rescue boats everyone began to move to one side and the boat inclined to one side and then it turned over completely.’
As he hit the water, Said fainted. When he woke up, he had been rescued.
Exhausted, he is now turning his attention slowly to reaching his aunt’s house.
‘I hope to be able to do it without having to resort to smugglers because I have seen too many and I don’t have the money,’ he said.
‘We asked him what his name was but it was obvious that he had given the wrong name as the next time someone asked him he forgot it and couldn’t remember it for a few moments.
‘I have been doing this job so long I see who is the trafficker straight away. It’s written on their face. And they are always in much better shape than the others who are normally exhausted and tired.’
Nurse Enrico Vitiello, also with the Order of Malta and working on the Coast Guard vessel, said that the two suspected traffickers had kept themselves apart from the other survivors.
He said: ‘We knew it was them. They didn’t want to be with the others. They just wanted to stay on their own. One black guy once put his arm on the Tunisian guy’s shoulder and he immediately pushed him off.’
Malek was later charged with multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration.
Prosecutors claim he contributed to the disaster by mistakenly ramming the overcrowded fishing boat into a merchant ship that had come to its rescue.
They claimed as a result of this collision the migrants on board shifted position on the boat, which was already off balance, causing it to overturn.
He was arrested along with his alleged smuggler accomplice, a 26-year-old Syrian crew member named Mahmud Bikhit, who was charged with ‘aiding illegal immigration’.
Meanwhile, one survivor claimed Malek was drunk when he collided with the King Jacob.
‘The captain was drinking wine,’ the survivor told La Repubblica.
‘He was drunk and he smoked hashish while he was at the helm a little while before the boat hit the Portuguese container ship.’
Another said that the captain had laughed as he beat migrants.
Ibrahim, an Eritrean who said he lost two brothers in the tragedy, said the Syrian crewman led the abuse of those who complained.
He told La Sicilia: ‘The other captain, the Syrian, hit us, mainly those who complained about the conditions on the journey, while they both laughed. ‘
The Tunisian captain steered the boat like ‘ a madman’ he said.
‘They were horrible, deranged. One steered the boat like a madman, holding a bottle as he held the rudder. He kept smoking and drinking and laughing.
Another survivor Fofana said he had paid 1,000 dollars more for the place on the top deck that saved his life.
‘We paid more, almost 1000 dollars more, for a better place. We were on the top deck almost 50 of us. The others were in the two lower levels. When we left they wanted to put more people on board but in the end they decided that we were too many and we left. ‘
Ibrahim, 20, added: ‘I am afraid of the sea now. It’s horrible and crazy like those two that killed everyone, including my two brothers. I couldn’t save them because they panicked.’
Another Eritrean Tesfalem said: ‘Someone wanted me not to die, now I am condemned to live.’
While they were searching the waters Dr Pomilla said a man from the coast guard heard a cry for help in English. The boy from Mali aged 18 or 19 did not know how to swim but was clinging to an inflatable life belt, he said.
Other survivors were seen clinging to dead bodies as they waited for help from the Maltese and Italian coastguards who came to rescue them in the middle of the night.
The survivors were told that all the women and children on the boat had been sitting below deck and had been trapped when the ship went down. Some survivors said they died like ‘rats in cages’.
Infra red images released by the coast guard show the rescue operation after the migrant ship capsized
Some of the youngest survivors of the disaster disembark from the rescue boat. Save the Children has said they will be encouraged to go to school if they decide to stay in Italy
People rescued were grateful to be alive but devastated to have lost their friends, Pomilla added.
‘I helped one of the boys get dry and gave him a change of clothes, and took him down to see the nurse,’ he said.
‘Then I heard him crying, his head in his hands. He hugged me and said he was crying because of his friends that had not made it. Another asked if he could look at the bodies for his sister.’
Malek grins on the desk of the Italian coastguard ship next to some of the migrant survivors before his arrest
Tunisian boat captain Mohammed Ali Malek (centre) bites his nails as he waits to disembark an Italian coastguard ship before being arrested over the deaths of 950 migrants who died when his ship sank
Malek watches some of the bodies being taken off the rescue ship for burial in Malta before he left the ship
A police handout showing Mohammed Ali Malek (left) and Mahmud Bikhit (right) after their arrest in Sicily
Others who survived the wreck revealed the terror of the moment the boat began to sink.
Abdirizzak Hassan, 16, almost wept as he remembered.
‘I was very scared. It was dark and all you could hear was people screaming. I just prayed I would live.’
The Somali teen added: ‘The boat was divided into three decks and each one was packed. There was easily 800 people onboard – maybe more. It was mostly men but there were some women and children.
PICTURED: THE ETHIOPIAN AT THE CENTRE OF THE HUMAN SMUGGLING RING
Ermias Ghermay, who lives in Tripoli, was already wanted on an arrest warrant in connection with an October 2013 capsizing off Lampedusa that left 366 dead
This is the face of the Ethiopian man Italian police believe is sending thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean – many to their deaths – as the head of a people trafficking ring.
Ermias Ghermay, who lives in Tripoli, was already wanted on an arrest warrant in connection with an October 2013 capsizing off Lampedusa that left 366 dead.
But this is the first time police have revealed the photofit of Ghermay – who, along with Eritrean Mered Medhanie, is thought to have made £72million from trafficking in the last two years with little concern for the fates of those who pay thousands to make the dangerous journey.
Ermias Ghermay is already wanted on a warrant in connection with an October 2013 capsizing off Lampedusa
According to the Independent, Ghermay was heard telling contacts in Italy: ‘They organised another trip a few days ago.
‘I don’t know what happened – they probably died.’
In another recording, Medhanie, who is known as The General and thought to have a wife and child in Sweden, is heard to boast he had sent ‘7,000 to 8,000′ people across to Europe this year alone, the Independent reports.
Ghermay is one of several traffickers Italian police are pursuing in connection with a major human smuggling ring.
‘When the big ship approached everyone got very excited and ran to one side. At the same time we struck the big ship and turned upside down.’
Omar Abdi Daqane, 17, also from Somalia, said he survived because he managed to hold onto a lifejacket.
‘It was horrible. It was terrible being in the water in the dark.
‘All the people were thrashing about in the water and screaming. I just kept thinking about my family and I would never see them again. Now I’m safe and I’m happy.’
Riajul Islam, 17, from Bangladesh, worked in a hotel in Tripoli for a year to earn the £450 he needed to pay for his place on the boat.
He said he felt ‘lucky’ because he was not locked in the hold.
‘I lived because I was on the top deck and I know how to swim,’ Riajul explained.
‘I thought I was going to die. There were about 50 or 60 people in the water. I was in there for about 20 minutes before I was picked up.’
Fellow Bangladeshi Nasir Khan, 17, said: ‘I’m so glad to still be alive. Others were not as lucky. I’m just grateful I was on the top deck.
‘I didn’t have a life jacket but I managed to just swim and stay afloat. We were lucky the water wasn’t cold otherwise it would have been different.’
He said he was looking forward to starting a new life in Europe.
‘In Bangladesh there is no work but now I have the opportunity to do something good and earn a living with a job.’
He said his family had seen the story and were very worried about him but now knew he was alive.
Dr Pomilla revealed how other relieved teens ‘wanted to take selfies with us and asked for us to be Facebook friends with them’.
He added: ‘They have so much courage to start a new life all alone.’
Four teenage survivors from the ship that sunk off the coast of Libya in a temporary accommodation center for children in Catania. Pictured from left to right is Riajul Islam, 17, Nasir Khan, 17, Abdirizzak Hassan, 16, and Omar Abdi Daqane, 17
Survivors said they resorted to clinging to floating corpses until coastguards came to their rescue
The stricken boat initially set off from Egypt and then stopped off on the Libyan coast near the city Zuwarah to pick up more passengers, it has been reported.
It set off from Libya on Saturday and sent out a distress signal shortly before midnight 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. It later capsized.
Most of the survivors and the victims of the disaster appear to have been young men but there were also several children aged between 10 and 12.
The survivors, who hailed from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Eritrea and Bangladesh, were all recovering on Tuesday at holding centres near Catania on Sicily’s eastern coast.
The Maltese Prime Minister has previously estimated that the traffickers would have made between 1million and 5million euros by selling places on the boat to desperate migrants.
Sunday’s tragedy comes just days after another shipwreck in the area claimed 400 lives, the worst in a series of migrant shipwrecks that have claimed more than 1,700 lives this year – 30 times higher than the same period in 2014 – and nearly 5,000 since the start of last year.
In that time nearly 200,000 migrants have made it to Italy, mostly after being rescued at sea by the Italian navy and coastguard.
Surviving immigrants who escaped the boat that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea killing up to 900 people appear deep in thought as they arrive in the Sicilian port city of Catania this morning
Growing numbers of Africans have been setting off on ill-fated voyages to Europe from Libya and the country’s coastlines has become a prime target for people-smugglers.
Tens of thousands of migrants have also been tempted into crossing because of the recent warm weather, and Italian officials believe there may be as many as another million people waiting to board to boats in conflict-torn Libya.
The coast guard reported that it saved some 638 migrants in six different rescue operations on Monday alone.
On Tuesday, a further 446 people were rescued from a leaking migrant ship about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the Calabrian coast
At talks in Luxembourg on Monday, EU ministers agreed on a 10-point plan to double the resources available to maritime border patrol mission Triton and further measures will be discussed at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday.
Critics say Triton is woefully inadequate and are demanding the restoration of a much bigger Italian operation suspended last year because of cost constraints.
Hardline: Tony Abbott, whose conservative government introduced a military-led operation to turn back boats carrying asylum-seekers before they reach Australia, said harsh measures are the only way to stop deaths
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged the EU to introduce tough measures to stop migrants attempting to make the perilous sea voyage from North Africa to Europe.
Mr Abbott, whose conservative government introduced a military-led operation to turn back boats carrying asylum-seekers before they reach Australia, said it was the only way to stop deaths.
While Mr Abbott’s controversial policy has proved successful, with the nation going nearly 18 months with virtually no asylum-seeker boat arrivals and no reported deaths at sea, human rights advocates say it violates Australia’s international obligations.
Outlining his views on preventing the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, Mr Abbott told reporters: ‘We have got hundreds, maybe thousands of people drowning in the attempts to get from Africa to Europe.’
The ‘only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats’, he added.
Some of the estimated 250 detained migrants at the Abu Salim detention centre in Gasr Garabulli, Alaqrablola
These people are thought to have been waiting to make the crossing to Europe
Libyan officials announced they had stopped several boats packed with Africans trying to reach Italy’s shores in the past three days, detaining more than 600 immigrants.
The war-torn country’s security forces detained around 70 Africans in Tripoli where they were waiting for smugglers to put them on a boat bound for Lampedusa, a senior immigration official said on Tuesday.
At least two boats, one packed with some 250 people from Senegal, Ghana and Ethiopia and other African nationalities and another one with Ethiopians and Eritreans on board, were stopped in the past three days after sailing off from Libya, he said.