Death Toll of African Migrants Still Rising in Horrific Shipwreck off Italian Coast

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 3 2013 6:32 PM

Death Toll of African Migrants Still Rising in Horrific Shipwreck off Italian Coast

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Italian policemen and rescue workers stand next to the covered bodies of migrants at Lampedusa port on October 3, 2013.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

The death toll continued to rise late on Thursday in the horrific shipwreck off the coast of southern Italy, with Italian officials saying that at least 111 had died and some 200 more still unaccounted for.

Between 450 and 500 African migrants were believed to be on board the ship when it set off from Libya, reportedly heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa, a frequent port of call made by thousands of African migrants each year looking for a better life in Europe. The island is only 70 miles from the coast of Tunisia, closer than to mainland Italy, and is a often the destination for smugglers, who transport people in often rickety, overcrowded boats. The 66-foot boat was overloaded with migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, an Italian coast guard spokesman told the Associated Press. Here’s a terrifying report of how the accident occurred, from the AP:

After the boat started taking on water, someone on board set a fire to get the attention of passing ships. The flames spread and panicked passengers surged to one side to avoid the fire. The vessel capsized, and hundreds of men, women and children who didn't know how to swim were flung into the Mediterranean Sea.
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When the boat went down it was reportedly only half-a-mile from shore. The deaths, the AP reports, may have come down to the fact that no one on board had a cell phone, as smugglers usually call for help when they run into trouble at sea.

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.