ROME -- The Eritreans were seeking a new life in Europe, with about 500 of them crowded aboard a 66-foot boat crossing the Mediterranean. Instead, the vessel caught fire and capsized Thursday, in one of the worst disasters seen on a route sailed by thousands of Africans each year.
More than 200 migrants were pulled alive from the water as fishing boats, helicopters and coast guard vessels mounted a rescue operation off the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is 70 miles from the African coast. But at least 94 migrants drowned and more than 200 are missing, officials said.
"We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances," said Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on the island, as corpses were lined up on the island’s quayside. Other bodies were taken to a hangar at the island’s airport.
"It's horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them," said Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini.
The boat began to take on water half a mile from Lampedusa after it lost engine power, prompting passengers to light a fire on board to attract rescuers. Angelino Alfano, Italy's interior minister, said fuel in the water ignited, setting the ship on fire. Passengers moved to one side of the boat, causing it to capsize.
The U.N.'s refugee agency has said 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first half of 2013, up from the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. About 500 migrants are believed to have died on the crossing last year, and more than 6,000 are believed to have drowned in waters off Sicily from 1994 to 2012.
Survivors from Thursday's capsizing reported three fishing boats had seen their fire but sailed on without assisting.
This year, many Syrians fleeing the conflict in their country have started sailing to Italy, mainly making for Sicily before trying to get to Sweden.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said action was needed by the European Union to stem "a succession of massacres of innocent people".
Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union's home affairs commissioner, said she was "appalled" by the deaths. Writing on Twitter, she added, "We must redouble efforts to fight smugglers exploiting human despair."
"The word that comes to mind is 'shame,' " Pope Francis, who traveled to Lampedusa in July and met with migrants, said on Thursday during a speech. "Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happened again."