ROME — The rickety fishing boat was the third of the night to head toward the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in choppy waters, overloaded with African migrants fleeing war and poverty and seeking a better life in Europe. Most aboard never reached shore.
After the boat started taking on water, someone on board set a blanket on fire to get the attention of passing ships. The flames from the blanket ignited gasoline and spread, panicking passengers, who surged to one side to avoid the fire. The vessel capsized, and hundreds of men, women and children — most of whom could not swim — were flung into the Mediterranean Sea.
More than 110 people died and about 250 were still unaccounted for late Thursday, Italian officials said.
“We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances,” said Pietro Bartolo, chief of Lampedusa health services.
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It was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous crossing thousands make each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests.
Lampedusa, 70 miles off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.
“It’s an immense tragedy,” Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini said.
Between 450 and 500 people were believed to be on board the boat, which set sail from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and capsized about a half-mile from Lampedusa; Italian Health Commissioner Antonio Candela said only 159 were rescued.
Bartolo initially put the death toll at 94 but said it would certainly rise as search operations continued. Italian coast-guard divers later reported seeing more bodies on the ocean floor.
The deaths of so many people may have come down to the lack of a cellphone.
The 66-foot boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Italian Coast Guard spokesman Marco Di Milla said.
It nearly reached its destination, getting as far as nearby Conigli island before it began taking on water, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.
Usually, smugglers have mobile or satellite phones to call for help when they near shore or run into trouble. Instead, someone on this boat set fire to the blanket to attract the attention of passing ships, he said.
Only three of the estimated 100 women on board were rescued — and none of the 10 children were saved, said Simona Moscarelli, of the International Organization for Migration in Rome. Two of the dead women were pregnant.
Italian Coast Guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters searched for survivors. Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens at Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicolored tarps on the docks.
Coast-guard divers found the wreck on the sea floor, some 130 feet below the surface, Cmdr. Floriana Segreto said.
The grisly deaths again underscored the dangerous, desperate efforts by many migrants from Africa and the Middle East to reach Europe by sea, while also renewing criticism of European immigration policy. Immigration is a politically volatile issue in Europe, so much so that Greece recently completed a nearly eight-mile fence blocking its border with Turkey, an attempt to shut down a major land-migration route.
But some experts say that making it harder to slip into Europe by land has only pushed many migrants to try the more perilous route by sea. With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Africa, the number of asylum seekers and migrants arriving by boat in Spain and Italy has spiked this year. According to statistics released by Save the Children, 21,780 migrants reached Italy during the first nine months of this year, including 4,000 children.
Lampedusa has become a gateway to Europe for migrants. In some seasons, boats filled with migrants and asylum seekers arrive almost daily. Pope Francis, who visited the island in July to draw attention to the plight of migrants, expressed sadness and outrage over Thursday’s fatal accident.
“The word disgrace comes to me,” the pope said at the Vatican, calling for prayers on behalf of the dead and their families.
For Italy, the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean has become an enormous operational and humanitarian challenge. Italian Coast Guard boats are dispatched almost daily on dangerous rescue missions.
On Thursday, European Commission officials expressed sadness about the accident and blamed criminal syndicates and human smugglers for exploiting desperate people. They called for a crackdown on the smugglers while saying that Europe also needs to step up dialogue with the countries from which migrants originate.
“No country can solve migratory flows by itself,” said Michele Cercone, a spokesman for Europe’s home-affairs commissioner. “This won’t end overnight.”
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.