WASHINGTON — At least 63 migrants died Feb. 26 when the wooden boat carrying them — in a storm with high waves and strong winds — broke apart after crashing against rocks along the coast of Calabria in southern Italy.
The death toll was expected to rise as rescue crews continued to recover bodies the day after the wreckage.
In his Sunday Angelus, hours after the ill-fated ship was torn apart, Pope Francis prayed “for those who are lost, and for those who have survived.”
He also expressed his gratitude for all those working in the rescue efforts and for those “who offer welcome to those seeking refuge.”
“May the Virgin Mary sustain you,” he said, according to a Vatican News report.
The boat left Turkey the previous week with about 200 passengers. At least 80 survivors were initially found.
On the shore, rescue crews also found remnants of the splintered boat and migrants’ belongings, including toys and a few lifejackets.
Firefighter Inspector Giuseppe Larosa told reporters on the beach the next day that initial rescue crews had been devastated by the number of children who had drowned. He also said the bodies of the dead had scratches all over them that might have come from hanging onto the boat to save themselves.
“It was a spine-chilling scene,” he said, not only to find victims but to see the reaction of the survivors.
“That thing that struck me the most was their silence. The terror in their eyes and the fact that they were mute. Silent,” he said, according to The Associated Press.
The U.N. and Doctors Without Borders also had crews on the scene and reported that many of the boat’s victims were from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.
Boats from Turkey carrying refugees have been taking the longer and more dangerous route to Italy in recent months, instead of Greece, where there has been an increased crackdown on migrant smuggling.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni blamed human traffickers for the deaths, saying it was criminal to launch a small boat with so many people in adverse weather.
“It is inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women, and children for the price of a ticket under the false perspective of a safe journey,” she said in a statement.
Matteo Piantedosi, Italy’s interior minister, similarly said in a statement that new measures need to be taken to reduce the number of dangerous journeys like this one.
“It is essential to continue with every possible initiative to stop departures and discourage crossings in any way which takes advantage of the illusory mirage of a better life,” he said.
The Missing Migrants Project, an international group documenting the deaths and disappearances of migrants, said the Central Mediterranean route is “the deadliest known migration route in the world.” The group has recorded more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances there since it started this work in 2014.
With better weather coming in the region, a Vatican News report warned that more migrant boats are expected to set sail in upcoming weeks.