Divers carrying out the gruesome job of pulling dozens of bodies from a packed migrant ship that sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa have been buoyed by the gift of rosaries blessed by Pope Francis.
Working in difficult conditions and poor visibility, about 50 divers are taking turns to enter the vessel resting on the seabed at a depth of 154 feet. They slip in through a window to try to pull up the bodies that are still in the hold of the ship.
The divers have spoken of a horrific site of a pile of dozens of tangled bodies of men, women and children who were trapped in the hold. One diver told reporters "All those bodies packed into the wreck, almost all with staring eyes and their arms raised, as if they were calling for help"
The search for survivors at first and then bodies has continued ever since the first alarm was given by fishermen Thursday morning. The fishermen spoke of hearing sounds that they believed to be seagulls, but then realized they were coming from hundreds of people -- mostly Eritreans and Somalis -- screaming for help in the water.
Other fishermen spoke of the difficulties of rescuing so many people who were exhausted from being in the water and whose bodies were slippery from fuel in the water.
The ship was believed to be packed with 500 people. Only 155 survived the arduous journey and over 250 bodies have been found so far.
Each of the divers, according to tweets from the Vatican daily paper, is carrying a rosary which has been blessed by Pope Francis, seen as sort of a blessing to the victims and the site. And to show his concern and closeness to survivors of the tragedy, the pope dispatched a representative to the island this weekend and has promised funds for the survivors.
Pope Francis chose to visit the island in July on his first trip outside of Rome since his election in solidarity with the tens of thousands of people who brave the sea in rickety vessels to make the dangerous crossing from African shores.
He declared a "day of tears" for victims of the shipwreck while on his first trip to the town of Assisi, birthplace of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi and blurted out "The word disgrace comes to me. It is a disgrace!" while addressing an audience of conference participants when news broke of the tragedy the day before.
More politicians will descend on the tiny island, the closest Italian island to North African shores Italy's Prime Minister Enrico Letta with Italy's deputy prime minister and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano will accompany European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on his visit to Lampedusa Wednesday.
Italy has appealed to the 28-member nations of the EU to help with the problem and increase resources for sea patrols across the Mediterranean to help prevent further migrant tragedies. Calls have been made for a united search and rescue operation across the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain. Talks about how to patrol the seas and coordinate asylum seekers and migrant movements across Europe are expected to dominate today's meetings in Luxembourg.
The survivors who are still gathered in an over-crowded holding center on the island staged a protest this morning as they want to leave the island and demand better living conditions.
Prosecutors today have ordered the detention of a 35-year-old Tunisian man, Kaled Bensalam, who is suspected of being the captain of the ship. He faces possible charges of multiple homicide, among others. Many survivors have testified that he was the man in charge of the ill-fated crossing.
In the meantime, before the temperate weather conditions come to an end and crossings become problematic, migrants continue to land on Italy's southern shores. Over 500 arrived this weekend and about 263 migrants landed in the Sicilian port of Catania early this morning after they were rescued from a merchant boat flying a Panama flag 60 miles off the coast of Siracusa, Sicily. The migrants, most of them Syrian and Palestinian nationals, included 63 women and 79 minors.
The United Nations estimates that more than 20,000 migrants trying to reach Europe have drowned in the Mediterranean in the past 25 years.
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