ROME — The rickety fishing boat was the third of the night to head toward the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, overloaded with African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Most never reached shore.
After the boat started taking on water, someone on board set a fire to get the attention of passing ships. The flames spread and panicked passengers surged to one side to avoid the fire. The vessel capsized, and hundreds of men, women and children who could not swim were flung into the Mediterranean Sea.
At least 114 people died and some 200 were still unaccounted for late Thursday, Italian officials said.
“We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances,” said Pietro Bartolo, chief of Lampedusa health services.
It was one of the deadliest accidents in the crossing thousands make each year, seeking a new life in the 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,” 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; health commissioner Antonio Candela said only 159 were rescued.