Kalamata, Greece –
Kassem Abu Zeid took the first flight from Germany to Greece after realizing that his wife and son-in-law were on a fishing trawler full of migrants who had drowned in the Mediterranean.
As rescue ships deployed Thursday to search for hundreds of people missing in the tragedy, relatives of migrants gathered in the southern port city of Kalamata to search for their loved ones.
“The last time we spoke was eight days ago, and (my wife) told me she was getting ready to get on the boat,” Abu Zaid told the Associated Press. She had paid $5,000 to the smugglers. “And then we all know what happened.”
Abu Zeid, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee living in Hamburg, said Israa Aoun, 21, and her 19-year-old brother Abdullah risked the dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy after failing to find a legal way to join. him in Germany.
Greek authorities have been criticized for failing to act to rescue the overcrowded boat’s occupants, even though a coast guard vessel escorted it for hours and watched helplessly as it sank within minutes. Greek officials have argued that the migrants have repeatedly refused help and insisted on continuing to travel to Italy, but legal experts say this is no excuse.
In other developments, the Coast Guard said nine survivors were arrested on suspicion of belonging to the smuggling gang that organized the trip. State broadcaster ERT said the suspects were all Egyptians.
The chances of Abu Zeid’s wife surviving the shipwreck that killed at least 78 people were slim. A large-scale search and rescue operation involving dozens of ships and three aircraft has not found any survivors since its initial phase early Wednesday, when 104 people were rescued.
None of the survivors was a woman. Now Abu Zayd hopes Abdullah will be among the men from Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories who are temporarily staying at the Kalamata warehouse or recovering in hospitals from hypothermia and exposure.
“The chances of finding (more survivors) are slim,” Admiral Nikos Spanos, a retired Greek coast guard, told state broadcaster ERT.
Authorities fear that hundreds of people, including many women and children, were trapped below deck when the ship capsized overnight in deep waters 75 kilometers (45 miles) from shore.
The United Nations migration agency, known as the International Organization for Migration, estimated that the ship was carrying between 700 and 750 people, including at least 40 children, based on interviews with survivors. This could make it one of the deadliest shipwreck ever in the central Mediterranean.
Erasmia Romana, head of the UNHCR delegation, said the survivors were shocked.
“They want to communicate with their families to let them know they are okay, and they are constantly asking about missing people. Many of them have friends and relatives who are gone,” Romana said.
Muhammad Abdi Marwan, who spoke by phone from Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria, said five of his relatives were on the boat, including a 14-year-old. Marwan said he has not heard from them since the drowning.
His nephew, Ali Sheikhi, 29, is believed to be alive after family members spotted him in pictures of a survivor, but this has not been confirmed.
There were only supposed to be 500 people on the boat, now we hear there are only 750. What is this? Are they cattle or people? How do they do this? Marwan said. He said each of his relatives paid $6,000 for the trip.
Greece declared three days of mourning and the Supreme Court prosecutor ordered an investigation.
Greek authorities said the ship appeared to be sailing normally until shortly before it sank and have rejected repeated offers of rescue. But a network of activists said they had received repeated distress calls from the ship over the same period.
The Greek coast guard said it became aware of the boat’s presence late Tuesday morning, and indicated by helicopter that it was “navigating a steady course” at 6 p.m.
A short time later, Greek search and rescue officials reached a person on the boat by satellite phone, who repeatedly said the passengers needed food and water but wanted to continue to Italy.
Merchant ships delivered supplies and watched the ship until early Wednesday morning when a satellite phone user reported an engine problem. About 40 minutes later, according to a coast guard statement, the migrant ship suddenly began to shake violently and sink.
Coast Guard experts believe the boat may have run out of fuel or had an engine problem, as passenger traffic caused it to list and capsize.
Alarm Phone, an activist network that provides a helpline for struggling immigrants, said the problems started earlier in the day. The network said people on board called for help shortly after 3 p.m., saying they “couldn’t survive the night.”
At about 6:20 p.m., the alarm phone wrote, the migrants reported that the boat had not moved and the captain left in a small boat. Both accounts cannot be settled immediately.
Maritime law would have required Greek authorities to attempt a rescue if the boat was unsafe, experts said, whether the passengers requested it or not. Retired Italian Admiral Vittorio Alessandro said search and rescue “is not a two-way street. You don’t need approval.”
An aerial photograph of the ship before it sank, released by the Greek authorities, showed people crowded on the deck. Most of them were not wearing life jackets.
Alessandro said overcrowding, a lack of flak jackets or a lack of a captain were all reasons for the intervention.
Professor Erekrosage of the University of Oslo’s Institute of Private Law said that under international law, Greek authorities “certainly have an obligation to initiate rescue procedures” given the condition of the fishing vessel.
He said that the captain’s refusal to help could be reversed if it turned out to be unreasonable. “It appears that the denial in this case was completely unreasonable,” Roces said.
Greece’s acting civil protection minister, Evangelos Tornas, defended the behavior of the coast guard.
“The coast guard cannot interfere with a vessel that does not accept interference in international waters,” he said. “Also keep in mind that the intervention of the Coast Guard could endanger an overloaded vessel, which could capsize as a result.”
The bodies of the deceased migrants have been taken to a morgue outside Athens, where the identification process will begin.
The site of the sinking is near the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, where depths of up to 17,000 feet (5,200 metres) can hamper any effort to locate a sunken ship.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, promised to strengthen cooperation between the EU and neighboring countries to try to further crack down on migrant smugglers.
But human rights groups say the crackdown has forced migrants and refugees to take longer and more dangerous routes to reach safe countries.
The disaster should serve as a wake-up call for the European Union, said Eftichia Georgiadi, the Greek president of the charity International Rescue Committee.
“No one embarks on these treacherous journeys unless he feels he has no other choice,” she said. The EU’s failure to provide safer migration pathways “effectively closes the door to people seeking protection”.
The International Organization for Migration has recorded more than 21,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014.
The deadliest shipwreck in living memory occurred in the Mediterranean on April 18, 2015, when a fishing boat full of migrants off the coast of Libya collided with a cargo ship that was trying to rescue it. Only 28 people survived. Forensic experts concluded that there were originally 1,100 people on board.
Buffett reported from Athens, Greece. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Menelaus Hadjikostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Renata Prieto in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.