CATANIA, Sicily – Migrants frantically shimmied up ropes dangling from a towering cargo ship and others jumped into the water grasping at lifesavers. Five bodies were recovered in the latest Mediterranean rescue and more were feared drowned.
A video shot from the rescue ship and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press provides a glimpse of the desperation of the tens of thousands of people trying to reach Europe on dinghies launched by human traffickers from Libya.
The footage was shot by a crew member of the cargo ship Zeran, which rescued two migrant boats over the weekend and docked at Catania's port Tuesday with mostly West African migrants aboard.
Migrants jumped or fell from their deflating dinghy to catch lifesavers tossed into the water by Zeran crew members. Others climbed over one another trying to grab hold of a rope lowered from the ship. Still others emptied jerry cans of gasoline to use as floats.
"Easy! Easy!" implored a crew member from Zeran's deck.
The Zeran crew member who shot the footage said the five bodies were all recovered from inside the dinghy, suggesting that the migrants had either died during the crossing or in the frantic final rush to be rescued. He estimated at least another five to nine people fell into the water and drowned.
He asked that his name not be used because he's not authorized to speak to the media.
Save the Children, which interviewed the survivors upon their arrival, said they had reported "dozens" of people died in the rescue Sunday between Libya and Sicily.
"There was the big ship there and they threw down ropes," Astoy Fall Dia, a 24 year-old migrant from Senegal, told the AP after disembarking from the Zeran.
"Someone grabbed onto the rope. All the other people started pushing to try to save themselves but the people started falling in the water."
Dia said she survived because she stayed close to the dinghy, and because she knew how to swim. "Half the people were in the water, half were above (in the boat), and I stayed near the dinghy," she said.
The weekend saw a dramatic increase in rescues as smugglers in Libya took advantage of calm seas and warm weather to send thousands of would-be refugees out into the Mediterranean in overloaded rubber boats and fishing vessels. The coast guard reported that nearly 7,000 people were rescued in the three days ending Sunday.
The deaths come on top of the estimated 800 migrants who are believed to have drowned last month when their boat capsized off Libya with hundreds of passengers locked in the hold by smugglers. A few days earlier, a further 400 people were feared drowned in another capsizing.
After the deaths, the European Union held an emergency summit and agreed to contribute more boats and patrol aircraft to Mediterranean rescue efforts.
Even with the increased EU response, commercial cargo ships are increasingly being called on by Italy's coast guard to respond to migrants in need, as required by the law of the sea.
Catania prosecutor Giovanni Salvi complained last month that sometimes these commercial crews aren't trained or equipped to conduct rescues and that lives can be lost when migrants suddenly shift places on their unseaworthy boats as they try to get off.
Salvi later backtracked and praised the work and commitment of the commercial vessels which were coming to the rescue.
In the video obtained by AP, the Zeran crew first lowered a cable to the dinghy, presumably to draw it nearer to the merchant ship. Several men were seen pushing and shoving to try to grab hold of the cable while others farther away held onto lifesavers or floated with life jackets. As soon as a rope ladder was lowered down the hulking vessel's side, several migrants leapt into the sea and started to swim.
Once safely aboard, the migrants were patted down by crew members in protective gear to guard against scabies and other ailments.
Alpha Sisse, a 17-year-old from Ivory Coast, was among the migrants who disembarked from the Zeran on Tuesday. He said he had been in the second dinghy that the Zeran rescued and that everyone from his boat was safe.
"At least five people drowned, more are missing" from the other dinghy, he said. "They say maybe 20 people died."
Sisse said he had worked in Libya before deciding to make the journey to Europe, spurred in part because of the increasing danger of living in Libya.
Asked where he hoped to go from here, Sisse said: "Anywhere there is work. But my favorite country is Germany."