KALAMATA, Greece (AP) — Rescue workers transferred the bodies of dead migrants to refrigerated trucks as a major search continued Thursday for possible survivors of a sea disaster in southern Greece. Hundreds of people are still feared missing.
At least 78 bodies have been recovered after a fishing boat crammed with migrants seeking to make it from Libya to Italy capsized and sank a day earlier in deep waters off the Greek coast.
Rescuers saved 104 passengers — including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians, mostly men and including eight minors — but authorities fear that hundreds of others may have been trapped below deck. If confirmed, that would make the tragedy one of the worst ever recorded in the central Mediterranean.
Authorities revised the confirmed death toll from 79 following an overnight count of the bodies.
“The survivors are in a very difficult situation. Right now they are in shock,” Erasmia Roumana, head of a United Nations Refugee Agency delegation, told The Associated Press after meeting the rescued migrants in a storage hangar in the southern port of Kalamata.
“They want to get in touch with their families to tell them they are OK, and they keep asking about the missing. Many have friends and relatives unaccounted for.”
Greece declared three days of mourning and politicians suspended campaigning for a general election on June 25. A Supreme Court prosecutor ordered an investigation into the circumstances of the deaths.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said she was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy and promised to strengthen cooperation between the European Union and nearby countries to try to further crack down on migrant smugglers.
But human rights groups argue that the crackdown means migrants and refugees are being forced to take longer and more dangerous routes to reach safe countries.
The search operation south of Greece’s Peloponnese region failed to locate any more bodies or survivors overnight or early Thursday.
“The chances of finding (more survivors) are minimal,” retired Greek coast guard admiral Nikos Spanos told state-run ERT television.
“We have seen old fishing boats like this before from Libya: They are about 30 meters (100 feet) long and can carry 600-700 people when crammed full. But they are not at all seaworthy. To put it simply, they are floating coffins.”
Coast guard experts believe the boat may have sunk after running out of fuel or suffering engine trouble, with movement of passengers inside the vessel causing it to list and ultimately capsize.
An aerial photograph of the vessel before it sank released by Greek authorities showed people crammed on the deck. Most were not wearing life jackets.
“We are witnessing one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean, and the numbers announced by the authorities are devastating,” said Gianluca Rocco, head of the Greek section of IOM, the U.N. migration agency.
The IOM has recorded more than 21,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014.
Greece’s coast guard said it was notified by Italian authorities of the trawler’s presence in international waters. It said efforts by its own ships and merchant vessels to assist the boat were repeatedly rejected, with people on board insisting they wanted to continue to Italy.
Twenty-nine of the survivors in southern Greece remain hospitalized, mostly with symptoms of hypothermia, while eight have been questioned by coast guard investigators. Government officials said the survivors would be moved to a migrant shelter near Athens later Thursday or Friday.
The bodies of the dead migrants were moved to a morgue outside Athens, where DNA samples and facial photographs will be taken to start the identification process. The embassies of the countries involved will assist, health officials said.
The spot is close to the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, where depths of up to 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) could hamper any effort to locate a sunken vessel.
The IOM said initial reports suggested up to 400 people were aboard. A network of activists said it received a distress call from a boat in the same area whose passengers said it carried 750 people.
The Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwreck in living memory occurred on April 18, 2015, when an overcrowded fishing boat carrying migrants collided off Libya with a freighter trying to come to its rescue. Only 28 people survived. Forensic experts concluded that there were originally 1,100 people on board.