Italian rescuers said on Saturday they planned to raise a wreck filled with corpses after a tragedy in which 300 African asylum-seekers are feared dead, as fishermen cast a wreath in the water.
Rough seas have forced the search off the island of Lampedusa to be suspended, and controversy has erupted over unsanitary conditions in a badly overcrowded refugee centre on the remote outcrop.
“We have a legal but also a moral responsibility to recover all the bodies,” said Leonardo Ricci, a spokesman on the island for the financial police, which also has border patrol duties in Italy.
“There are hundreds of families that are waiting for news,” he said, adding that there was a “preliminary plan” to raise the wreck while providing no precise details on how and when this would happen.
Divers spoke of “dozens, maybe hundreds” of bodies trapped in the wreck, which lies on the seabed at a depth of around 40 metres within sight of the shore of Italy’s southernmost point.
Officials said more bodies may have been lost forever due to strong currents around the island.
“The more time passes with these conditions, the less likely it is that we will find those who have been swept out to sea,” said Ignazio Gibilaro, another financial police official.
Emergency workers have recovered 111 bodies so far and plucked 155 survivors from the sea.
It is feared the final death toll could rise to close to 300, which would make this the worst ever Mediterranean refugee tragedy after a previous one in 1996, also off Italian shores, claimed 283 lives.
Fishermen from the island, which has a population of just 6,000 and is closer to north Africa than to Italy, took their boats out to sea on Saturday in a commemoration for the drowned.
“The dead cannot be forgotten, they have to be commemorated because they are people who tried to come and work, to live a better life,” said local fisherman Salvatore Martello as he cast a wreath.
“To Those Who Died At Sea,” read a white ribbon on the bunch of yellow and orange flowers bobbing in the water.
The fishermen then held a minute of silence.
Separately, the coast guard has also been forced to defend itself after accusations from the sailors who were first at the scene that bureaucratic delays in launching the official rescue had cost lives.
One survivor is the boat’s 35-year-old Tunisian skipper, who has been detained as prosecutors weigh charges against him.
Local prosecutor Ignazio Fonzo said the inquiry was proving “difficult” because survivors being heard as witnesses officially had to be considered suspects under Italy’s law against illegal immigration and therefore had to be provided with defence lawyers as well as interpreters.
The boat left Libya with an estimated 450 to 500 on board, mostly Eritreans and Somalis.