Hundreds Dead, 9 Arrested, and Many Questions in Migrant Wreck

At the end of a long stretch of sandy beach, a weathered warehouse in the port of Kalamata held the survivors of one of the worst shipwrecks in Europe in a decade.

Inside, dazed men from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, all with numbered badges around their necks, languished on tightly packed corridors of thin mattresses. Outside, relatives who had flown in from around Europe pressed authorities for information. They then found a crack on the side of the building between an aluminum shutter and a concrete wall, peered through and consoled the loved ones they could see and inquired about the fate of all those they could not.

“I have two brothers,” said Odai Altalab, a 35-year-old Syrian who had rushed down from his home in Manchester, England. One of them, Mohammed, sat on the other side of the wall. “The other, I don’t know. We need to know who is dead. Who is dead?”

Odai Altalab, center, a Syrian who rushed to Kalamata from his home in Manchester, England, spoke through a crack to one of his brothers who survived. Credit…Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

The Greek authorities have recovered 78 bodies from the sea and are looking for still more. But some of the 104 survivors from aboard the Adriana, a roughly 80- to 100-foot fishing boat that set sail last week from eastern Libya hoping to reach Italy, say there were hundreds more people aboard, including women and children below deck, when it sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean in the dark early hours of Wednesday.

That the overloaded ship was left to drift so far for so long and went down so quickly is generating uncomfortable questions throughout Greece and Europe. Survivors said that a Greek Coast Guard ship caused the fishing boat to capsize when it tried to tow the vessel with a rope.

Greek authorities say instead that they offered help several times but were rebuffed. When they did so again, this time in response to a report of engine failure — in international waters but within Greece’s search and rescue area — the men on the Adriana’s deck declined assistance. Soon after, the ship listed uncontrollably, and panicked passengers, all of them lacking life vests, shifted its weight. The boat sank in front of Coast Guard officers, who scrambled to save whomever they could, Greek officials said.

Survivors on thin mattresses inside the warehouse. Just days before a Greek election, there is no move by the leading party to soften Greece’s tough measures against migrants.Credit…Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

While the events that led to the wreck are murky, the disaster has made some things clear. Nearly a decade after its peak, and after it sparked populist uprisings that reshaped politics in several countries, Europe’s migration crisis has not gone away. The pandemic years may have muted it for a time, but an inexhaustible number of people are still willing to risk everything and board rickety boats in the hope of reaching Europe and a better life.

Also clear is that in the intervening years, Europe has hardened its stance, and its borders. Just days before a Greek election, there is no move by the leading party to soften Greece’s tough measures against migrants, which have lowered arrivals by 90 percent since 2015.

European authorities say the real problem is not tougher policies, but ruthless smugglers. On Thursday, Greek officials arrested nine Egyptian men who had survived the sinking, charging them with causing the wreck and illegally transferring migrants. By some survivors’ accounts, the men had denied food and water to the migrants, some of whom may have died of thirst and exposure on the ship’s deck even before the sinking.

On Thursday night, after 11 p.m., as lights warbled on the dark port water, police with masks loaded the accused onto vehicles and drove them to jail.

The Greek police taking men accused of causing the wreck to jail. Some survivors have said the men denied them food and water.Credit…Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Nearly 3,800 migrants died on routes within and from the Middle East and North Africa last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. This year is on track to be worse: The central Mediterranean had its deadliest first quarter since 2017, the agency said.

Based on the 78 bodies recovered so far, the shipwreck this week was the deadliest for Greece since 2015. But photos of the vessel taken by a Greek Coast Guard helicopter show that the actual toll is undoubtedly much worse than that.

“Seven hundred and fifty people,” said a survivor named Ashraf Al Kayat, 37, when asked to estimate the number of people on board. He said dozens of families were below deck.

The authorities said they believe that number is exaggerated, but agreed that the toll was likely in the hundreds, making the disaster worse or on par with some of the deadliest recorded in Europe’s migrant crisis, including several off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

Italy was a draw to the passengers on the Adriana as well.

“I was the one who told him to go to Italy,” Zain Mohammed, 23, who lives in Kalamata, said of his cousin, a Pakistani who died in the shipwreck. He said his cousin wanted to “fix his life, get a job, and that is easier in Italy because of the measures in Greece.”

The Greek authorities have recovered 78 bodies from the sea. But some of the 104 survivors of the wreck say there were hundreds more aboard.Credit…Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Critics have said that Greece’s tough policies have pushed human traffickers toward more perilous routes, though in the case of the Adriana, United Nations officials said they think the ship simply got lost.

Mr. Mohammed spoke to another Pakistani man through a narrow space between portable toilets lining a courtyard outside the warehouse. “He told me that after the mechanical failure, the Coast Guard tried to tie up the boat and it sank, and that all the women and children were underneath,” Mr. Mohammed said.

Marilena Giftea, 37, a vice president of Greece’s Red Cross, tended to survivors. She said dozens had told her how they were “packed like sardines,” with women and children mostly in the hold.

“There were a lot of people downstairs,” she said. “It was full. One man told us he lost 16 people from his family.”

A picture released by the Greek Coast Guard shows the Adriana’s decks packed with migrants before it sank. The ship is unlikely to be retrieved from the sea floor.Credit…Greek Coast Guard, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Greek government officials said the ship likely sank more than two miles to the sea floor, making retrieval all but impossible, and the ship’s hold a tomb.

Greece, which was alerted to the ship’s presence as early as Tuesday morning by the Italian authorities and the European Union’s border protection agency, noted that in prior days, the ship had passed near Malta, which did nothing. But Greece, which has said the ship turned down its repeated offers of assistance, appears to have been willing to take no for an answer and let the ship become Italy’s problem.

Activists who were in touch with passengers before the sinking said that conditions were dire, and that a merchant trawler tied ropes to the ship and tossed water aboard, causing a panicked scramble and prompting the ship to move away.

One of the survivors of the shipwreck is taken to a hospital. Some survivors fainted when they touched solid ground, Red Cross officials said.Credit…Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

The official initially denied that a Coast Guard ship ever tied ropes to the vessel. But after being contradicted by media reports, the official later acknowledged that it did so briefly, to ascertain the condition of the vessel and its occupants. Afterward, the traffickers or migrants untied the ropes and the Coast Guard ship moved away, observing from a close distance, the official said.

Three hours later, the boat sank.

Several of those who survived fainted as they touched solid ground, Red Cross officials said. A yellow ambulance pulled through the gates, and health workers wrapped a man in a yellow foil blanket, placed him on a stretcher and drove him to a hospital treating dozens of survivors. A young man in the warehouse screamed incessantly for his mother. Men wearing badges numbered 42 and 43 shuffled in sandals and flip-flops in single file across the courtyard behind aid workers to tents.

Survivors talked to people outside the fence around their holding area. Critics say Greece’s tough policies have pushed smugglers toward more dangerous routes.Credit…Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

By the gate, family members talked to aid workers about how they had checked the photos of survivors posted at the hospital, but that 21 men from their village had been on the boat, and they had seen a photo of only one of them.

After Greek Coast Guard ships retrieved the dead, they docked in front of their headquarters across from the port, where relatives of victims and survivors congregated as locals looked on.

Kostas Bouras, 80, leaned on his cane and shook his head. “These are desperate people — hopefully we can help,” he said, putting the blame at the feet of the smugglers who overloaded the boat and the countries that let them embark on such treacherous journeys. “You can’t blame the government in a case like this.”

A protest in support of migrants and refugees in Kalamata on Thursday. Some chanted, “We are all foreigners.”Credit…Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

But some did. In Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki, thousands of protesters demanded an easing of migration policies to prevent more disasters. In Kalamata, locals marched from the main square past cafes and shoe stores to the port, chanting, “We are all foreigners.” They held signs saying that the shipwreck “wasn’t a tragedy, but a murder by the state and the E.U.”

“It could have been us. It could have been our children,” said Eleni Giakoumi, 67, who marched in anger with her husband and children. “What happened there was a crime.”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Siena, Italy.

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