Irish navy saves migrants as overcrowded vessel sinks killing 150
At least 150 people drowned as Irish naval personnel battled to save more than 600 migrants on an overcrowded boat that capsized in the Mediterranean yesterday.
The LÉ Niamh went to the assistance of the craft and had deployed rescue boats on either side when the vessel suddenly capsized.
The boat, with large numbers of people trapped below deck, sank within two minutes. It is believed too many people may had moved to one side of the fishing boat, causing it to overturn.
A Defence Forces spokesperson said the LÉ Niamh arrived at the scene shortly before noon about 100 kilometres north of the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
The crew had already commenced a rescue operation when the boat capsized. All available rhib boats and life rafts were instantly deployed.
He confirmed 367 rescued people were brought aboard the LÉ Niamh, including 342 men, 12 women, and 13 children. Some 25 bodies have also been recovered, including that of at least one child.
Other vessels, including a ship operated by medical charity Medicins Sans Frontierés (MSF), rescued a further 32 people from the water. Between 150 and 200 people were estimated to have drowned, if not more.
Commander Brian Fitzgerald of the Irish Naval Service said a terrible tragedy unfolded before the crew’s eyes.
“The LÉ Niamh, following procedures, launched both of its rhibs for the purpose of reassuring those on board, it was estimated that up to 700 people were on this craft that was clearly not designed to carry anything like that number, and then our worst fear was realised when the vessel capsized before out very eyes,” he told RTÉ news.
“The ship had to go into an extraordinary operation to deal with up to 700 people in the water, many of whom cannot swim – in fact many of whom who have never seen water or the sea before this very day.”
“It was a horrific sight; people were desperately clinging to lifebelts, boats and anything they could, fighting for their lives, amidst people drowning, and those who had already died,” added Juan Matías, MSF project coordinator.
The disaster “underscores a severe lack of adequate search and rescue operations in the area,” said Mr Matías.
The LÉ Niamh was on its way to the Italian port of Palermo last night with the survivors and the bodies of the victims.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney said the LÉ Niamh, along with Italian Naval vessels, the Medicins Sans Frontiére vessel ‘Dignity’, and a number of helicopters took part in the rescue operation.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have lost their lives, the survivors and the rescuers for whom this is an extremely difficult operation”, he said.
A senior Irish naval officer and senior non-commissioned officer making up a critical incident stress management team flew from Ireland yesterday to join six trained counsellors on board the LÉ Niamh to offer counselling to crew members of the Irish vessel who witnessed the catastrophic capsize.
“The numbers reportedly involved show once again the extent of the crisis which is unfolding on Europe’s doorstep,” said Brian Killoran, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.