Video shows migrant rescue of deflating dinghy

Associated Press

Catania, Sicily— Migrants frantically shimmied up ropes dangling from a towering rescue ship and others jumped into the water grasping at lifesavers. Five bodies were recovered and more were feared drowned in the latest Mediterranean migrant tragedy.

A video shot from the cargo ship that came to the migrants' rescue and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press provides a glimpse of the desperation of the tens of thousands of people trying to reach Europe on dinghies launched by human traffickers from Libya.

The footage was shot by a crew member of the cargo ship Zeran, which rescued migrants from two boats over the weekend and docked at Catania's port Tuesday with mostly West African survivors aboard.

In the footage, migrants jumped or fell from their deflating dinghy to catch lifesavers tossed into the water by Zeran crew members. Others trampled one another to grab hold of a rope lowered from the ship. Still others emptied jerry cans of gasoline to use as floats.

Women and children were among the last off.

"Easy! Easy!" implored a crew member from Zeran's deck.

The five bodies were all recovered from inside the dinghy, floating amid the garbage and water that had seeped in, suggesting that the migrants had either died during the crossing or in the frantic final rush to be rescued.

The crew member who shot the footage estimated at least another five to nine people fell into the water and drowned, though one man floating away with the current and clinging to a lifesaver was rescued by crew on a Zeran lifeboat.

The crew member asked that his name not be used because he's not authorized to speak to the media.

Save the Children, which interviewed the survivors upon their arrival, said the migrants had reported "dozens" of people died in the rescue Sunday between Libya and Sicily.

"There was the big ship there and they threw down ropes," Astoy Fall Dia, a 24 year-old migrant from Senegal, told the AP after disembarking from the Zeran.

"Someone grabbed onto the rope. All the other people started pushing to try to save themselves but the people started falling in the water."

Dia said she survived because she stayed close to the dinghy, and because she knew how to swim — unlike most of the migrants who come from poor African countries. "Half the people were in the water, half were above (in the boat), and I stayed near the dinghy," she said.

The weekend saw a dramatic increase in rescues as smugglers in Libya took advantage of calm seas and warm weather to send thousands of would-be refugees out into the Mediterranean in overloaded rubber boats and fishing vessels. The coast guard reported that nearly 7,000 people were rescued in the three days ending Sunday.

The deaths come on top of the estimated 800 migrants who are believed to have drowned last month when their boat capsized off Libya with hundreds of passengers locked in the hold by smugglers. A few days earlier, a further 400 people were feared drowned in another capsizing.

After the deaths, the European Union held an emergency summit and agreed to contribute more boats and patrol aircraft to Mediterranean rescue efforts.

Even with the increased EU response, commercial cargo ships are increasingly being called on by Italy's coast guard to respond to migrants in need, as required by the law of the sea.

Catania prosecutor Giovanni Salvi complained last month that sometimes these commercial crews aren't trained or equipped to conduct rescues and that lives can be lost when migrants suddenly shift places on their unseaworthy boats as they try to get off.

Salvi later backtracked and praised the work and commitment of the commercial vessels which were coming to the rescue. And crew members from the Zeran said they were individually certified for rescue operations.

But it was clear that there was a language barrier and that the migrants weren't heeding the pleas of the crew, high up on deck, to stay calm. When the coast guard rescues migrant boats, it usually sends out Zodiacs and crews use loudspeakers to implore the passengers in various languages to stay calm and in their place.

In the video obtained by AP, the Zeran crew first lowered a cable to the dinghy, presumably to draw it nearer to the merchant ship. Several men were seen pushing and shoving to try to grab hold of the cable while others farther away held onto lifesavers or floated with life jackets. As soon as a rope ladder was lowered down the hulking vessel's side, several migrants leapt into the sea and started to swim.

Once safely aboard, the survivors were patted down by crew members in protective gear to guard against scabies and other ailments.

For those who died, Italian navy divers wearing masks boarded the deflated dinghy and placed the corpses in body bags, which were then transferred to the Zeran.

Alpha Sisse, a 17-year-old from Ivory Coast, was among the migrants who disembarked from the Zeran on Tuesday. He said he had been in a second dinghy rescued over the weekend and that everyone from his boat was safe.

"At least five people drowned, more are missing" from the other dinghy, he said. "They say maybe 20 people died."

Sisse said he had worked in Libya before deciding to make the journey to Europe, spurred in part because of the increasing danger of living in Libya.

Asked where he hoped to go from here, Sisse said: "Anywhere there is work. But my favorite country is Germany."