- By Nick Beck in Kalamata and George Wright in London
- BBC News
Survivors of a fishing boat that sank off southern Greece in one of Europe’s worst migrant disasters say as many as 100 children may have been on board.
At least 78 people have been confirmed dead in the disaster.
But dozens more are still missing at sea, with reports of as many as 750 people on board.
Greek public broadcaster ERT reported that 11 to 12 were arrested at the Kalamata Port Authority.
The country’s coast guard was criticized for not intervening earlier, but authorities say their offers to help have been rejected.
Rescuers are still plying the seas off Greece in a massive search, with hopes fading of finding more survivors.
Harrowing accounts of the large number of women and children traveling in the hold of the ship were received by the medics who treated the mostly male survivors.
The boat was reportedly traveling from Libya to Italy before it capsized.
The chief physician at Kalamata General Hospital who treated survivors of the shipwreck on Wednesday told the BBC that as many as 100 children were on board.
“They (the survivors) told us that there were children at the bottom of the ship. Children and women,” said Dr. Manolis Makaris, chief of cardiology.
He said two patients had provided him with estimated numbers.
He added, “One told me about 100 children and the other about 50, so I don’t know the truth – but it’s a lot.”
He and his team used cell phones to communicate with those who had been brought to safety.
The doctor said that the 30 patients he treated would survive after being treated for high fever, pneumonia and dehydration.
Dr Makaris said he believes up to 600 people may have died in the disaster.
He added, “The exact number of all the people on the boat was 750. This is the exact number everyone told me about this.”
Dr. Makaris said that the families of some of the missing Egyptian children have sent him pictures of their young relatives, hoping that he will identify them after they are treated.
“It was a tragedy,” he said. “Everyone in Europe must not accept this situation. We have to do something. Everyone must do something so that this does not happen again.”
A reporter from the Greek ANT1 channel asked one of the survivors if there were 100 children on board, to which the survivor replied: “Yes”.
The charity Save the Children, citing testimonies from survivors, also gave the same number. The BBC has not been able to independently verify this figure.
But Greek government spokesman Ilias Syakantaris said there were unconfirmed reports of up to 750 people on board.
“We don’t know what was in custody…but we know that many smugglers are holding people to maintain their control,” he told public broadcaster ERT.
Families of some of the missing have arrived in Kalamata in search of their loved ones.
“My relatives were on the boat,” said Aftab, who had flown in from the UK and said at least four of his relatives from Pakistan were missing.
“We got confirmation. We found a relative in [the rescue centre]. But the others we haven’t got yet.”
A Syrian man from the Netherlands has collapsed as he reveals that his wife and son-in-law are missing.
Activist Nawal Sofi was the first to sound the alarm after people on the boat contacted her on Tuesday morning. It is also believed that about 750 people were on board.
The Greek coast guard said the boat went down about 80 km southwest of Pylos just after 02:04 a.m. Wednesday local time.
A timetable provided by the Coast Guard stated that initial contact was made with the fishing boat at 14:00 (11:00 GMT) the day before, and no request for assistance was made.
She said the Greek Ministry of Shipping repeatedly called the boat and told it it wanted to sail to Italy. It added that a ship flying the flag of Malta provided food and water at around 18:00, and another boat provided water three hours later.
Then around 01:40 on Wednesday, someone on the boat is said to have notified the Greek Coast Guard that the ship’s engine had failed.
Shortly thereafter, the boat capsized, and it only took 10 to 15 minutes to sink completely. A search and rescue operation has begun but is complicated by high winds.
A Coast Guard spokesperson told ERT that the boat’s engine failed in the early hours of Wednesday, and then people on the boat started moving causing the boat to capsize. He said that all those rescued were male.
The Alert Phone, an emergency helpline for migrants in trouble at sea, received its first call from the boat in distress an hour after the Coast Guard first called on Tuesday.
Ms Sophie said in a Facebook post that the situation became “complicated” when a rescue boat approached the ship and attached a rope to it while water bottles were being thrown.
She said that some of the people on the boat then felt “very dangerous” because of fears that the rope would cause the boat to capsize, and that fights on board could cause the boat to capsize. Then the boat moved away.
Ms Sophie said she kept in touch with people on the ship until 23:00 local time, saying she was reassuring them that the Greek coast guard would rescue them.
On her last call, she said, one of the men told her, “I feel like this is going to be our last night alive.”
She said people had “no intention of continuing” to go to Italy and “are in dire need of assistance with water”.
The conflicting accounts may be due to the Coast Guard talking to the crew, while the Lady Sophie and Vaughn’s Alarm were talking to people on the ship.
The Coast Guard was “aware that the vessel was in distress for hours before any assistance could be dispatched,” Vaughn’s Alert complained, adding that authorities were “informed by various sources” that the boat was in trouble.
Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Kalamata on Thursday and met survivors of the shipwreck.
He asked, “Why, when the authorities spotted a ship loaded with more than 700 people about to sink in an emergency, did they not force them to rescue it?”
Jerome Tubiana of Doctors Without Borders told French radio that the European and Greek authorities should have intervened earlier.
“It is truly appalling to hear that Frontex flew over the boat and no one intervened because the boat rejected all offers of help… An overloaded boat is a boat in distress.”
Tsipras spoke to survivors on Thursday, who explained how they believe the boat capsized.
News247 quoted the survivor as saying, “The Greek coast guard told the ship to follow them, but they couldn’t. Then the coast guard threw a rope but because they didn’t know how to pull the rope, the ship started dangling left and right.”
“The Coast Guard boat was moving very fast but the ship was already dangling to the left, and that’s how it sank.”
Italy’s interior minister told SkyTG24 that the disaster occurred in “the Greek search and rescue area, under the specific responsibility of that country”.
The coast guard says an air and sea search for survivors is continuing 47 miles southwest of Pylos, and Greece is observing three days of mourning.
Campaigning has been suspended ahead of parliamentary elections on June 25, and a televised debate between the two front-runners on Thursday was canceled.
Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Last month, the Greek government came under international criticism over a video that was said to show the forced expulsion of migrants who had been swept out to sea.
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