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Italy lowers toll from 2015 migrant wreck

Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

Rome — Italian authorities on Thursday lowered by more than 200 people the estimated number of migrants who died in a 2015 shipwreck that spurred Europe to beef up its Mediterranean rescue efforts.

Survivors of the April 18, 2015, wreck had told investigators that the fishing boat was carrying from 700 to 800 people, most of them trapped in the hull. Only 28 survived.

But after the ship was raised from the seabed this week and authorities got a look at its dimensions, they lowered the estimated number of passengers.

Divers had originally recovered 169 bodies and discovered another 10-11 once the resurfacing operation got under way.

As a result, Navy Rear Adm. Pietro Covino said there were likely “no fewer than 300” bodies left in the hull. Combined with the 180 bodies already found, the final toll could be around 500.

Covino stressed that forensic investigators hadn’t had a chance yet to enter the hull to count the bodies or start the identifying process, something that is planned for the next several days.

The presumed deaths of so many migrants in a single shipwreck sparked renewed outrage and soul-searching in European capitals, which agreed to send in EU naval reinforcements to cast a wider safety net to try to rescue the waves of migrants leaving Libya on smugglers’ boats.

Most of the boats that sink are never recovered, and the dead are never retrieved or identified. But Italy pledged to recover the wreck and spent 9.5 million euros to raise it to the surface in hopes of identifying the dead and creating a data bank of information for families to contribute identifying information.

The operation involved a complicated pulley system fixed to a support frame that attached to the shipwreck some 1,214 feet down. Strong currents and poor weather complicated the efforts, with the final resurfacing operation alone taking 20 hours, officials said.

Discrepancies over death tolls are not unusual: Humanitarian organizations and investigating authorities typically rely on survivors’ accounts to piece together how many people may have been killed during a capsizing, relying on overlapping accounts to try to establish a level of veracity. But given the trauma of the survivors, the lack of a ship manifest and overall chaos of the smuggling operations, the estimates often vary.

And even when there are reliable estimates, they in no way paint the full picture of migrant deaths since there are some ships that sink without a trace.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates that from April 19, 2015, to today, some 4,927 people have perished making the sea crossing to Europe.