ROME (AP) — A wooden boat crowded with migrants smashed into rocky reefs and broke apart before dawn Sunday off the Italian coast, authorities said. Rescuers recovered nearly 60 bodies, and dozens more people were missing in the rough waters.
Officials feared the death toll could top 100 since some survivors indicated the boat had as many as 200 passengers when it set out from Turkey, United Nations refugee and migration agencies said.
At least 80 people were found alive, including some who reached the shore after the shipwreck just off Calabria's coastline along the Ionian Sea, the Italian Coast Guard said. One of the agency's motorboats rescued two men suffering from hypothermia and recovered the body of a boy.
As sundown approached, firefighters said 59 bodies had been found.
One man was taken into custody for questioning after fellow survivors indicated he was a trafficker, state TV said.
The boat collided with the reefs in wind-whipped seas. Three big chunks of the vessel ended up on the beach near the town of Steccato di Cutro, where splintered pieces of bright blue wood littered the sand like matchsticks.
“All of the survivors are adults,″ Red Cross volunteer Ignazio Mangione said. ”Unfortunately, all the children are among the missing or were found dead on the beach.” A baby and young twins were reported among the dead.
Rescuers said two men who survived were spotted trying to save children by holding them over their heads as waves buffeted them. But the children died, state TV said.
The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said it was offering psychological assistance to survivors, who included a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan whose sister, 28, made it to the beach but then died. The group said the teen “hasn't found the courage to tell his parents.”
Another survivor was a 12-year-old boy from Afghanistan who lost his entire family, including four siblings.
Italian state TV quoted survivors as saying the boat set out five days ago from Turkey.
Standing next to the wreckage on the beach, a reporter for Italian RAI state TV noted a life preserver bearing the word “Smyrna,” a Turkish port also known as Izmir.
More than 170 migrants were estimated to have been aboard the ship, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration said in a joint statement.
Among them were "children and entire families,'' according to the U.N. statement, with most of the passengers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.
Earlier, in an indication of the difficulty in establishing how many passengers had set out on the voyage, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said some 200 people had been crowded into a 20-meter (66-foot) boat.
The rescue operation involved a helicopter and police aircraft, as well as vessels from state firefighter squads, the Coast Guard and border police. Local fishermen also joined in the search.
The bodies were brought to the sports stadium in the nearest city, Crotone.
A priest said a few of the bodies washed up on a stretch of beach near his town. “While I blessed them, I was asking myself why do we arrive after the deaths,'' the Rev. Rosario Morrone told state TV. “We need to get there before.”
State TV said 22 survivors were taken to a hospital.
Pope Francis told the faithful in St. Peter's Square that he was praying for the dead, the missing and the survivors, as well as for rescuers "and for those who give welcome” to the migrants.
“It's an enormous tragedy,” Crotone Mayor Vincenzo Voce told RAI. “In solidarity, the city will find places in the cemetery” for the dead.
In 2022, some 105,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores, some 38,000 more than in 2021, according to Interior Ministry figures.
According to U.N. figures, arrivals from the Turkish route accounted for 15% of the total number, with nearly half of those fleeing from Afghanistan.
Meloni expressed “her deep sorrow for the many human lives torn away by human traffickers.”
“It’s inhumane to exchange the lives of men, women and children for the ‘price’ of a ticket paid by them in the false prospect for a safe voyage,” said Meloni, a far-right leader whose governing allies include the anti-migrant League party.
She vowed to crack down on departures arranged by human smugglers and to press fellow European Union leaders to help.
Opposition parties pointed to Sunday’s tragedy as proof of the flaws in Italy’s migration policy.
“Condemning only the smugglers, as the center-right is doing now, is hypocrisy,″ said Laura Ferrara, a European Parliament lawmaker from the populist 5-Star Movement.
“The truth is that the EU today doesn’t offer effective alternatives for those who are forced to abandon their country of origin,″ Ferrara said in a statement.
Another route employed by traffickers crosses the central Mediterranean Sea from Libya's coast, where migrants often endure brutal detention conditions for months before they are allowed to board rubber dinghies or aging wooden fishing boats for Italian shores. That route is considered one of the deadliest.
Meloni's government has concentrated on complicating efforts by humanitarian boats to make multiple rescues in the central Mediterranean by assigning them ports of disembarkation along Italy's northern coasts. That means the vessels need more time to return to the sea after bringing migrants aboard and taking them safely to shore.
Humanitarian organizations have lamented that the crackdown also includes an order to the charity boats not to remain at sea after the first rescue operation in hopes of performing other rescues, but to head immediately to their assigned port. Violators face stiff fines and confiscation of rescue vessels.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella called on the European Union to "finally concretely assume the responsibility of managing the migratory phenomenon to remove it from the traffickers of human beings.''
Italy has complained bitterly for years that fellow EU countries have balked at taking in some of the migrants, many of whom are aiming to find family or work in northern Europe.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
Frances D'emilio, The Associated Press