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Italy mourns ‘day of tears’ for shipwrecked migrants, calls for help from Europe

October 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to Italy, where after Thursday’s migrant boat shipwreck, hundreds are feared dead and search efforts have been suspended.

We have a report narrated by Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: They came to Europe fleeing war and poverty and ended up nearly drowning tantalizingly close to the Mediterranean shore.

Italy’s coast guard rescued these two African migrants, but it’s reckoned more than 300 may not have survived after their boat sank to the bottom. This morning, divers took the search underwater, to the seabed 40 meters below, to the rickety trawler which broke down with perhaps 500 people aboard.

The rough seas led to this search being called off. This is not a hunt for survivors now, but a body count for the hundreds who could not swim.

ADM. FELICIO ANGRISANO, Italian Coast Guard (through interpreter): We will continue all day and all night until we can give these bodies a proper burial.

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JONATHAN RUGMAN: Over 150 Africans, many from Eritrea and Somalia, were more than thankful to be rescued yesterday. The Coast Guard is usually first alerted by a distress call. But, in this case, the boat didn’t telephone ahead. Instead, the migrants on board set fire to a blanket and this desperate bid for attention proved fatal.

VERONICA LENTINI, International Organization for Migration (through interpreter): They set a blanket on fire to make a signal, but some gasoline on the boat caught light and the water caused the fire to spread. They were scared and all moved to one side of the boat, so the boat capsized and they fell in the water. But many of them were trapped inside the boat.

VITO FIORINI, fisherman (through interpreter): We rescued naked guys dirty from fuel. They had death in their eyes. It was an ugly and scary situation. I will never forget it. Even though I am 64 and have seen a lot, this touched me a lot.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In Italy, flags were flown at half-mast on this, a day of official mourning.

Pope Francis was visiting Assisi, where his namesake, Saint Francis, once dedicated himself to the poor. The pope abandoned his script and lamented a world which he said didn’t care about those who found death in Lampedusa yesterday, and calling this a day of tears.

But amid the anguish, with one newspaper calling this a shameful massacre, the Italians are casting this as Europe’s problem just as much as theirs. The interior minister asked for Europe’s help and claimed Lampedusa would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The survivors are being held in a so-called welcome center on the island, where more than 8,000 have been received so far this year. And though Italy’s prime minister is now calling for Europe to set up humanitarian corridors for migrant boats, far more likely are more hearses carrying more dead, Lampedusa’s problem and no one else’s.