Kalamata, Greece – A day after a refugee-filled vessel capsized off Greece’s west coast, the first relatives of those on board began to trickle into the southern Greek town of Kalamata to find their loved ones.
More than 500 passengers are thought to be missing, in one of the worst losses of life recorded in the Mediterranean Sea.
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The Hellenic Coastguard rescued 104 and collected 78 bodies from the Ionian Sea 47 nautical miles (87km) off Pylos, but survivors spoke of as many as 700 on board.
Aerial photographs the Hellenic Coastguard published showed a packed fishing trawler about 30 metres (98 feet) long. The boat had left Tobruk and was headed for Italy, the coastguard said.
Kassem Abuzeed, a Syrian living in Hamburg, was looking for his wife, Ezra Aboud.
He had tried and failed to bring her to Germany legally, and had paid smugglers $5,000 to transport her from the refugee camp in Jordan where she lived, across North Africa and the Mediterranean.
“I want to speak with the survivors to find out something, but they don’t let us,” Abuzeed said through an interpreter, Mahmoud Tafashia.
The coastguard was deposing survivors and was not allowing them to talk to the media or relatives.
“If there is the body of his wife, they will tell us, but that will take time, three or four days. But we don’t know now what we should do,” said Tafashia.
Abuzeed had last spoken to his wife a week before the sinking.
“She told him I will go with the boat now. She told him, I will go now with the boat and I will talk to you as soon as I can,” said Tafashia.
Survivors ‘a wreck’
All the survivors were male, aid workers told Al Jazeera, and many collapsed on the dock as soon as they arrived on Wednesday [June 14]. Many were in a state of shock.
“The interpreter asked them whether the women and children had been in the ship’s hold,” Red Cross worker Marile Gyftea told Al Jazeera.
“They were in such shock, that one moment they would say, ‘No, she’s back home,’ and the next moment, ‘She was with me.’”
The men had eaten and slept during the day, Gyftea said, “but now that they’re waking up they’re having panic attacks again.”
Almost three dozen had been hospitalised with various ailments, including water in the lungs, but all would survive, doctors said.
“All of them, it seems, will be all right,” Kalamata mayor Thanasis Vasilopoulos told Al Jazeera.
“It’s mostly their psychology. They’re a wreck. They’ve lost loved ones. One told me he had 30 friends on the boat. Phone calls are flooding into the hospital, of people looking for their loved ones.”
Journalists were not granted access to the survivors, but officials were allowed to talk to them.
“I don’t know if you can consider these men lucky when there are [hundreds of] people at the bottom of the sea,” said Mihalis Yiannakos, the head of Greece’s public hospital doctors’ union.
“They told us the women and children were in the ship’s hold. Some said they were in the [trawler’s] refrigerators,” he told Al Jazeera.
Who is to blame?
The Hellenic Coastguard has published a detailed timeline of the events surrounding the disaster.
It claims Frontex, the European Border and coastguard, alerted it to the ship’s whereabouts on Tuesday morning, and it dispatched two helicopters, a high seas patrol vessel from the city of Chania and a Maltese-flagged rescue ship, all of which made visual contact with the trawler at various times.
“The first communication with the trawler was made after great difficulty at 2pm [11:00 GMT],” wrote the Hellenic Coastguard. “The trawler didn’t ask for any help from the coastguard or from Greece.”
The Maltese ship did pull up alongside the trawler at 6pm (15:00 GMT) to deposit food and water.
At 6:30pm (15:30 GMT), the coastguard spoke with an English speaker on the trawler via satellite phone.
“The satellite phone user … said the vessel was not in danger, they do not wish for assistance except food and water, and they wish to continue towards Italy,” said the coastguard.
“Between 3:30pm [12:00 GMT] and 9pm [18:00 GMT], the Merchant Marine Ministry’s operations centre was repeatedly in contact with the trawler via satellite phone. In all these communications, they repeated constantly that they wish to sail to Italy and didn’t want any help from Greece,” said the coastguard.
The coastguard’s high seas vessel came upon the trawler at 10:40pm (19:40 GMT), said the coastguard.
“It remained at a distance and observed the trawler discreetly. It did not find any problem with the trawler’s sailing. It held a constant speed and direction.”
“This continued until 1:40am [22:40 GMT] on June 14th,” it said, when the trawler’s engines stopped working.
At 2:04am (23:04 GMT), the coastguard captain informed the operations centre that “he saw the trawler lurch to starboard, then to port, then to starboard again so violently that it capsized”, the coastguard said. “Ten to 15 minutes later the trawler sank completely.”
A different version
That version is challenged by Alarm Phone, an NGO that monitors refugee boats in the Mediterranean. It said it received a call from the trawler on Tuesday afternoon.
The refugees said, “They cannot survive the night, that they are in heavy distress,” said Alarm Phone in a timeline of its own.
Alarm Phone said the reason passengers on the trawler turned away Greece’s assistance is that “people on the move know that thousands have been shot at, beaten, and abandoned at sea by these Greek forces”.
“They know that encountering the Hellenic Coastguard, the Hellenic Police or the Hellenic Border Guards often means violence and suffering. It is due to systematic pushbacks that boats are trying to avoid Greece, navigating much longer routes, and risking lives at sea,” it said.
Alarm Phone says it has documented evidence of Greek authorities beating asylum seekers and pushing them back from Greek borders.
Greece’s left-wing opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras, was filmed talking to a refugee on Wednesday, in which the refugee told him that the Greek coastguard caused the capsizing by trying to tow the trawler.
“So the Greek coastguard used a rope to drag you, and that is how you sank?” the left-wing leader asked.
The Greek coastguard denies this.
“You cannot divert a boat with so many people on board by force unless there is cooperation,” spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou told state TV ERT on Wednesday.
The Greek coastguard has been accused of trying to tow asylum seekers away from Greek shores with disastrous results before.
Eleven Afghan women and children drowned in 2013 after the coastguard tried to tow them in a rickety boat.
The coastguard said it was towing them to the nearest Greek island.