At least 79 dead after migrant boat 'with 100 children in hold' capsized off southern Greece

15 June 2023, 12:56 | Updated: 15 June 2023, 13:46

The Greek coastguard released images of the crowded boat before it sank
The Greek coastguard released images of the crowded boat before it sank. Picture: Hellenic coast guard

By Asher McShane

At least 79 people have died after a fishing boat packed with migrants trying to reach Europe sank off the coast of Greece.

In one of the worst disasters of its kind this year, at least 79 people are dead and many more are missing.

Survivors have said up to 100 children may have been on board.

Coast guard, navy and merchant vessels and aircraft have launched a vast search-and-rescue operation.

Initial reports suggested hundreds of people may have been aboard when the boat went down far from shore. Emergency workers have confirmed 79 bodies have been recovered.

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The fishing boat pictured in the hours before it sank
The fishing boat pictured in the hours before it sank. Picture: Hellenic Coast Guard

An aerial photograph of the battered blue vessel released by the Greek coastguard showed scores of people covering practically every inch of deck.

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 25- to 30-metre vessel capsized after people abruptly moved 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 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.

The ship 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 there were "more than 500 people" on board.

Authorities said 104 people were 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 meters) could hamper any effort 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 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 agency said.

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 benefited from the instability, and made Libya one of the main departure points for people attempting to reach Europe on smuggler's boats.

The Italian coast guard first alerted Greek authorities and the European Union border protection agency, Frontex, about an approaching vessel on Tuesday.