Fatal Shipwreck: How It Happened and Unanswered Questions

STECCATO DI CUTRO, Italy (AP) — “Italy, here we come!” cheered the young men in Urdu and Pashto as they filmed themselves standing on a boat sailing in bright blue waters.

They were among around 180 migrants – Afghans, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians, Somalis and others – who left Turkey in hopes of a better or simply safer life in Europe.

Days later, dozens of them were dead. So far, 70 bodies have been recovered from the February 26 shipwreck near the small beach town of Steccato di Cutro, but only 80 survivors were found, indicating the death toll was higher, some of the victims’ bodies were lost in the Ionian Sea.

The tragedy has highlighted the lesser-known migration route from Turkey to Italy. It also brought into focus the tightening Italian and European migration policies, which since 2015 have moved away from search and rescue and instead prioritized border surveillance. The Italian government is also being asked why the coast guard was deployed too late.

Using court records, testimony from survivors and family members, and testimony from authorities, the AP has reconstructed what is known about the events leading up to the shipwreck and the unanswered questions.



In the early hours of February 22, the migrants – including dozens of families with young children – boarded a leisure boat at a beach near Izmir after traveling by truck from Istanbul and crossing a forest on foot.

They left the shore. But just three hours into their voyage, the ship suffered an engine failure. While still at sea, an old wooden gulet – a traditional Turkish boat – arrived as a replacement.

The smugglers and their helpers urged the migrants to hide below decks as they continued their journey west. With no life jackets or seats, they huddled together on the floor to catch their breath or relieve themselves, only briefly. Survivors said the second boat also had engine problems and stopped several times en route.

Three days later, on Saturday 25 February at 22:26, ​​a European Border and Coast Guard aircraft patrolling the Ionian Sea spotted a boat heading for the Italian coast. The agency, known as Frontex, said the ship “showed no signs of distress” and was navigating at 6 knots and “good” buoyancy.

Frontex emailed the Italian authorities at 23:03 reporting a person on the upper deck and possibly others below, spotted by thermal imaging cameras. There were no life jackets to be seen. The email also mentioned that a satellite phone call to Turkey had been made from the boat.

In response to the Frontex sighting, the case was classified as “occupation of the maritime police”. Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, or Financial Police, which also has a border and customs role, dispatched two patrols to “intercept the ship.”

As the Turkish boat approached the Italian coast of Calabria on Saturday night, some of the migrants on the boat were allowed to notify the family, informing them of their impending arrival and releasing the €8,000 fee that was agreed with the smugglers.

The men who steered the boat told concerned passengers they would have to wait a few more hours for disembarkation to avoid being caught, survivors told investigators.

At 3:48 a.m. on Sunday, February 26, the Financial Police ships returned to base without having reached the boat due to bad weather. Police contacted the Coast Guard to ask if they had vessels at sea “in case a critical situation arises,” according to a note obtained by Italian agency ANSA and confirmed by AP. The Coast Guard replied that it was not. “Okay, I just wanted to let you know,” a police officer said before hanging up.

Just minutes later, around 4am, local fishermen spotted lights in the darkness on Italy’s south coast. Desperately, people waved their phone flashlights from atop a boat stuck on a sandbar.

The suspected smugglers grabbed black tubes, possibly life jackets, and jumped into the water to save themselves, according to survivors. Waves continued to pound the ship until it suddenly ripped apart. The sound resembled that of an explosion, survivors said. People fell into the cold water, trying to hold on to whatever they could. Many could not swim.

Italian police arrived at the scene at 4:30 a.m., the same time the Coast Guard said it received the first distress calls related to the boat. It took the Coast Guard another hour to get there. By this time, bodies were already being pulled from the water, people screaming for help while others tried to revive the victims.



Dozens of small children were on board the boat. Almost none survived. The body of a 3-year-old was recovered on Saturday.

Among those who survived were a Syrian father and his eldest child, but not his wife and three other children. The body of his youngest, 5 years old, was still missing four days later.

An Afghan man drove down from Germany looking for his 15-year-old nephew, who had contacted the family and said he was in Italy. But the boy also died before he could set foot on land.

The uncle requested that his name and that of his nephew not be published as he has yet to inform the boy’s father.

The baby-faced teenager had shared a video with his family during their sea voyage in what appeared to be good weather.

His mother had died two years ago and when the Taliban returned to power, the family fled to Iran. The boy later traveled to Turkey, from where he tried several times to enter the EU.

“Europe is the only place where you can at least be respected as a person,” he said. Everyone knows it’s 100% dangerous, but they gamble with their lives knowing that if they make it, they can live.”



Prosecutors have launched two investigations – one into the alleged smugglers and another into whether there were delays in Italian authorities’ response to the migrant boat.

Among the 80 survivors, a Turk and two Pakistanis were arrested, suspected 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 shipwreck, Frontex told AP it had spotted a “severely overcrowded” boat and reported it to Italian authorities. However, in a second statement, Frontex clarified that only one person was visible on deck, but that its thermal imaging cameras – “and other signs” – suggested there might be more people below.

In an interview with the AP, retired Coast Guard admiral Vittorio Alessandro said the Coast Guard boats were designed for rough seas and that they should have sailed. “If not to rescue, then at least to check if the boat needs help.”

Alessandro added that photos released by Frontex showed high water levels, suggesting the boat was heavy.

The coastguard said Frontex had alerted the Italian authorities responsible for “law enforcement” and copied the Italian coastguard “only for their knowledge”. Frontex said it is up to national authorities to classify events as search and rescue.

“The problem is simple in its tragic nature: no emergency communications from Frontex reached our authorities. We were not warned that this boat was about to sink,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Saturday.

“I wonder if there is anyone in this nation who honestly believes the government deliberately allowed over 60 people to die, including some children,” she added.

However, Alessandro lamented how over the years, Coast Guard activities – which previously took place even far out in international waters – have been gradually curtailed by successive governments.

“Rescue operations at sea should not be replaced by police operations. Rescue must prevail,” he said.

In an interview with AP, Eugenio Ambrosi, chief of staff at the United Nations International Organization for Migration, stressed the need for a more proactive search and rescue strategyon European level.

“We can look and discuss whether the (boat) was spotted or not, whether the authorities were called and didn’t respond,” he said. “But we wouldn’t be asking that question if there was a search and rescue mechanism in the Mediterranean.”


Brito reported from Barcelona, ​​Spain. AP journalists Trisha Thomas in Rome, Colleen Barry in Milan and Ahmad Seir in Amsterdam also contributed to this report.

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