LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AP) — For the first time, deep sea divers entered the hull of a trawler that sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa with hundreds or refugees aboard, pulling 38 corpses from the crowded wreckage on Monday.
"They unpacked a wall of people," said Navy Capt. Paolo Trucco, noting that the death toll now stands at 232. "They were so entwined, one with the other, it is indescribable. They were so trapped they were difficult to pull out."
Wearing weighted suits and sturdy port-holed helmets, the divers were able to spend 30 minutes at a time at the wreck 47 meters (154 feet) below the surface, much more than a scuba divers seven to 10 minutes. This allowed them to remove debris that was still floating around inside to reach the hull.
"Mattresses, covers, stairs. Anything that would float. Imagine if you put a house in a centrifuge and you see what winds up in the air. That is what happened," Trucco said.
Coast Guard Capt. Filippo Marini estimated it would take two more days to complete the search and recovery mission. The survivors, mostly if not all from Eritrea, have said there were at least 500 people aboard the 18-meter-long (59-foot) boat when it sank, which could mean scores more remain trapped in the hull.
Only 155 of the migrants survived the fiery shipwreck.
Diver Riccardo Nobile, who did multiple dives on Sunday when 83 bodies were recovered from the sea, said he waited for more than an hour among the corpses on a recovery boat as other divers took their turns. The operations have been carried out in rotations by divers from the Navy, Coast Guard, police forces and the fire department.
"It was difficult to look straight at their faces, to see their wounds, see their tormented expressions, their outstretched arms," Nobile said. "It was extremely difficult. But this is our job."
The ship had arrived within sight of Lampedusa, a tiny island that is Italy's southernmost point, after two days of sailing from Libya when a fire set to draw the attention of potential rescuers sparked a panic.
According to survivor accounts, the passengers all rushed to one side of the boat, capsizing it and tossing hundreds of people into the sea, many of whom could not swim.
Tens of thousands of migrants from African and the Middle East try to cross the Mediterranean Sea each year, seeking a better life in Europe. Hundreds die in the process.
Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.