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Blanket Fire Started Migrant Boat Tragedy

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images(ASSISI, Italy) -- It may never be clear exactly how many people died on Thursday when an overloaded boat of illegal migrants capsized just half a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Officially 155 people survived and 111 bodies have been recovered. But survivors estimate there were 500 people crammed aboard the rickety fishing trawler. With rough waters Friday, the Italian Coast Guard said it was too dangerous for divers to continue and so the search for bodies has been suspended.

Estimates put the death toll at about 350 people. All were desperately poor Africans -- mostly from Ghana, Nigeria and Eritrea. They paid smugglers and boarded the boat in Libya hoping to follow the treacherous and well-travelled route to Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island that is closer to Africa than it is to Europe; it sits just 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia.

Every year thousands of poor and desperate Africans pay smugglers to get them to Lampedusa. For them it is the gateway to the freedom and prosperity of Europe. And every year hundreds die attempting the crossing.

According to the survivors, they were at sea for two days. They arrived off the coast of Lampedusa before dawn. With no cell phone or radio on board, one of the men on board lit a blanket hoping to get help from fishermen in the area.

But the flame ignited gasoline and the boat caught fire. In the panic the throng surged to one side and the boat tipped.

“The boat capsized and they fell in the water, but many of them were trapped inside the boat,” said Veronica Lentini, a field officer for the International Organization for Migration, told reporters.

One fisherman said when he first heard the screams he thought he was hearing seagulls. It was only when he got closer that he realized it was people who were screaming.

In the central Italian city of Assisi on Friday, Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the shrine of his namesake, St. Francis. On Thursday he had called the tragedy in Lampedusa “a disgrace” and Friday it was still on his mind as he talked about a world “that does not care about many people who have to flee poverty and hunger, flee in search of  freedom and many times they find death, as happened yesterday in Lampedusa.”

“Today,” he said, “is a day for tears.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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