A fishing boat filled with people trying to reach Europe capsized and sank on Wednesday off the coast of Greece, authorities have said.
In one of the worst disasters of its kind this year, at least 79 people were reported dead and many more remained missing. Coast guard, navy and merchant vessels fanned out for a vast search-and-rescue operation that continued into the night.
It was unclear how many passengers were missing, but some initial reports suggested hundreds of people may have been aboard when the boat went down miles from the safety of land.
An aerial photograph of the battered blue vessel released by the Greek coast guard showed scores of people covering practically every inch of the deck, with many more possibly crammed inside.
Ioannis Sarmas, Greece’s caretaker prime minister, declared three days of national mourning, saying: “With our thoughts on all the victims of the ruthless smugglers who exploit human unhappiness”.
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Coast guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou told state ERT TV that it was impossible to accurately estimate the number of passengers. He said it appeared that the vessel, measuring between 25 and 30 metres (80-100ft) long, capsized after people appeaered to abruptly move to one side.
“The outer deck was full of people, and we presume that the interior (of the vessel) would also have been full,” he said. “It looks as if there was a shift among the people who were crammed on board, and it capsized.”
A coast guard statement said efforts by its own ships and merchant vessels to assist the boat were repeatedly rebuffed, with people on board insisting they wanted to continue the journey on to Italy.
Coast guard officials said the trawler’s engines broke down around 1.40m on Wednesday, and just under an hour later, the ship started to list abruptly from side to side before capsizing. It sank 10 to 15 minutes later, the statement said.
Ioannis Zafiropoulos, deputy mayor of the southern port city of Kalamata, where survivors were taken, said that his information indicated that there had been “more than 500 people” on board.
The Associated Press news agency reported that authorities believed 104 people had been rescued after the sinking in international waters about 45 miles southwest of Greece’s southern Peloponnese peninsula. The spot is close to the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, and depths of up to 17,000 feet (5,200 metres) could hamper efforts to locate a sunken vessel.
Twenty-five survivors ranging in age from 16 to 49 were hospitalised with hypothermia or fever.
At the port of Kalamata, around 70 exhausted survivors bedded down in sleeping bags and blankets provided by rescuers in a large warehouse, while paramedics set up tents outside for anyone who needed first aid.
Katerina Tsata, head of a Red Cross volunteer group in Kalamata, said the migrants were also given psychological support. “They suffered a very heavy blow, both physical and mental,” she said.
Rescue volunteer Constantinos Vlachonikolos said nearly all the survivors were men. “They were very worn out. How could they not be?” he said.
Rescuers said many of the people pulled from the water could not swim and were clutching pieces of debris. The coast guard said none had life jackets. The Greek coast guard said 79 bodies have been recovered so far. Survivors included 30 people from Egypt, 10 from Pakistan, 35 from Syria and two Palestinians.
The Italy-bound boat was believed to have left the Tobruk area in eastern Libya — a country plunged into chaos following a Nato-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Human traffickers have profited from the resulting instability, and made Libya one of the main departure points for people attempting to reach Europe on smugglers’ boats.
The Italian coast guard first alerted Greek authorities and the European Union border protection agency, Frontex, about an approaching vessel on Tuesday.