Deadly shipwreck: how it happened and unanswered questions

STECCATO DI CUTRO (Italy): “Italy here we come!” cheered the young men, in Urdu and Pashto, as they filmed themselves standing on a boat sailing through bright blue waters.
They were among about 180 migrants — Afghans, Pakistani, Syrians, IraniansPalestinians, Somalis and others – who left Turkey in hopes of a better, or simply safer, life in Europe.
A few days later, dozens of them were dead. So far, 70 bodies have been recovered from the February 26 sinking near the small seaside town of Steccato di Cutro, but only 80 survivors have been found, indicating that the death toll was higher, some of the bodies of casualties lost in the Ionian Sea.
The tragedy highlighted the lesser-known migration route from Turkey to Italy.
He also highlighted the toughening of Italian and European migration policies, which since 2015 have moved away from search and rescue, prioritizing border surveillance.
Questions are also being posed to the Italian government about why the coastguards were not deployed before it was too late.
Based on court documents, testimonies from survivors and relatives, and statements from authorities, the AP has pieced together what is known about the events leading up to the sinking and the questions left unanswered.


In the early hours of Wednesday February 22, the migrants – including dozens of families with young children – boarded a pleasure boat at a beach near Izmir after a truck ride from Istanbul and a forest crossing walk.
They set off from the shore. But just three hours into their journey, the ship suffered an engine failure. Also on the high seas, an old wooden schooner – a traditional Turkish-style boat – arrived as a replacement.
The smugglers and their assistants told the migrants to hide under the bridge as they continued their journey west. Without life jackets or seats, they piled on the ground, only going out briefly to get some fresh air or relieve themselves.
Survivors said the second boat also had engine trouble, stopping several times along the way.
Three days later, on Saturday February 25, at 10:26 p.m., a European Union Border and Coast Guard aircraft patrolling the Ionian Sea spotted a boat heading for the Italian coast.
The agency, known as Frontex, said the vessel “showed no signs of distress” and was sailing at 6 knots, with “good” buoyancy.
Frontex emailed Italian authorities at 11:03 p.m. reporting one person on the upper deck and possibly more people below, detected by thermal cameras. No life vests were visible.
The email also mentioned that a satellite phone call had been made from the boat to Turkey.
In response to Frontex’s observation, the case was classified as a “maritime police activity”. The Italian Guardia di Finanza, or financial police, which also has a border and customs role, dispatched two patrols to “intercept the vessel”.
As the turkish boat approached Italy’s Calabrian coast on Saturday evening, some of the migrants on board the boat were allowed to message their families, informing them of their imminent arrival and releasing the agreed 8,000 euro fee with the passers.
Men navigating the boat told anxious passengers they had to wait a few more hours for disembarkation, to avoid getting caught, survivors testified to investigators.
At 03:48 on Sunday February 26, the financial police ships returned to their base, without having joined the boat due to bad weather.
Police contacted the Coast Guard to ask if they had any ships at sea “in case there is a critical situation” according to a communication obtained by Italian agency ANSA and confirmed by AP.
The coast guard said no. “OK, that was just to inform you,” said a policeman before hanging up.
A few minutes later, around 4 a.m., local fishermen on the southern coast of Italy spotted lights in the darkness. People were desperately waving their cellphone flashlights from the top of a boat stuck on a sandbar.
The suspected smugglers grabbed black tubes, possibly life jackets, and jumped into the water to save themselves, survivors said. Waves continued to crash on the ship until it suddenly tore apart. The sound was similar to an explosion, survivors said. People fell into the freezing water, trying to hold on to whatever they could. Many could not swim.
Italian police arrived at the scene at 4:30 a.m., when the coastguard says it received the first emergency calls related to the boat. It took the Coast Guard another hour to get there.
By then bodies had already been lifted from the water, people were screaming for help while others were trying to resuscitate the victims.


There were dozens of young children on board the boat. Almost none survived. The body of a 3-year-old child was recovered on Saturday.
Among those who survived were a Syrian father and his eldest son, but not his wife and three other children. The body of his youngest, aged 5, was still missing four days later.
An Afghan man drove from Germany looking for his 15-year-old nephew who had contacted his family saying he was in Italy. But the boy also died before setting foot on the ground.
The uncle asked that his name and that of his nephew not be published as he had not yet informed the boy’s father.
The baby-faced teenager had shared a video with his family during his trip to sea, with apparently good weather.
Her mother had died two years ago, and with the return of the Taliban to power, the family fled to Iran. The boy then continued to Turkey from where he repeatedly tried to enter the EU.
“Europe is the only place where at least you can be respected as a human being,” he said. Everyone knows it’s 100% dangerous, but they’re gambling with their lives because they know that if they succeed, maybe they can live.


Prosecutors have launched two investigations, one into the alleged smugglers and the other into whether Italian authorities were slow to respond to the migrant boat.
A Turk and two Pakistanis, among the 80 survivors, were arrested on suspicion of being smugglers or their accomplices. A fourth suspect, a Turkish national, is on the run.
Particular attention was paid to why the coast guard was never sent to check the boat.
A day after the sinking, Frontex told AP it spotted a “very overcrowded” boat and reported it to Italian authorities. In a second statement, however, Frontex clarified that only one person had been visible on the bridge but that its thermal cameras – “and other signs” – indicated that there could be more people below.
In an interview with AP, retired Coastguard Admiral Vittorio Alessandro said Coastguard boats are made to withstand rough seas and should have been taken out. “If not to rescue, at least to check if the boat needed help.”
Alessandro added that photos published by Frontex showed that the water level was high, suggesting that the boat was heavy.
The coastguard said Frontex had alerted Italian “law enforcement” authorities, copying the Italian coastguard “for their knowledge” only. Frontex said it was up to national authorities to classify the events as search and rescue operations.
“The problem is simple in its tragic nature: no emergency communication from Frontex has reached our authorities. We were not warned that this boat was in danger of sinking,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Saturday.
“I wonder if there is anyone in this country who honestly believes that the government deliberately left over 60 people, including children, to die,” she added.
Alessandro, however, lamented that over the years coastguard activities – which previously occurred even far out in international waters – have been gradually curtailed by successive governments.
“Sea rescue operations should not be replaced by police operations. Rescue must prevail,” he said.
In an interview with AP, Eugenio Ambrosi, chief of staff of the UN’s International Organization for Migration, stressed the need for a more proactive search and rescue strategy, at European level.
“We can watch and debate whether the (boat) was spotted, not spotted, whether the authorities were called and did not respond,” he said. “But we wouldn’t be asking that question if there was a search and rescue mechanism in the Mediterranean.”


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