Timeline: How the migrant boat tragedy unfolded off Greece

Greek authorities say they were notified of the boat’s presence but those onboard repeatedly refused offers for help.

scores of people covering practically every free stretch of deck on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece
A photo taken by the Greek coastguard hours before the tragedy shows a vessel crammed with people on its exposed decks. Some had their hands outstretched [Hellenic Coast Guard/AP]

Greek authorities have been accused of failing to rescue hundreds of refugees and migrants onboard a vessel that sunk near the coastal town of Pylos, causing one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea.

Reports suggest as many as 750 people were packed onto the fishing boat that capsized early on Wednesday in deep waters about 80km (50 miles) off the southern Peloponnese peninsula.

At least 78 bodies have been recovered and 104 people rescued. Hundreds are still missing.

The Greek coastguard was alerted to the presence of the vessel about 10am (08:00 GMT) on Tuesday. It capsized later that evening.

Exactly what happened in the intervening hours remains unclear.

Alarm Phone, a self-organised hotline for refugees in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, says the boat had reported being in trouble, but Greek authorities say it repeatedly refused offers of help.

Here is a timeline of the events that occurred on Tuesday, according to statements issued by Alarm Phone and Greek authorities:


9:53am (07:53 GMT): Activist Nawal Soufi, based in Italy, alerts Alarm Phone of a large boat in distress carrying 750 people. Over the following hours, Soufi sends additional information, including the GPS position of the vessel. She says authorities in Italy, Greece and Malta were alerted.

12:47 pm (10:47 GMT): A surveillance aircraft from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex spots the overcrowded trawler at and notifies Greek authorities.

The Greek coastguard confirms it was notified of the boat’s presence late on Tuesday morning.

2:17pm (12:17 GMT): Alarm Phone receives the first call from the boat. Its passengers say they are in distress and “cannot survive the night”. The call drops before the GPS coordinates can be confirmed.

Greek authorities say in their statement that they established contact with someone on the trawler at around 2pm. The vessel “did not request any assistance from the Coast Guard or from Greece,” they say.

3:35pm (1:35 GMT): A Greek Coast Guard helicopter located the trawler. An aerial photo released showed it packed, with people covering almost every inch of the deck. Some had their hands outstretched.

4:13pm (14:13 GMT): After a number of failed attempts at communicating with the boat, Alarm Phone receives the coordinates.

4:53pm (14:53 GMT): The organisation alerts the Greek authorities via email as well as other actors, including the EU border agency, Frontex, and UN refugee agency in Greece.

5:10pm (15:10 GMT): Greek authorities ask a Maltese-flagged tanker called the Lucky Sailor to bring the trawler food and water.

According to the company that manages the Lucky Sailor, people on the boat “were very hesitant to receive any assistance,” and shouted that “they want to go to Italy.”

Eastern Mediterranean Maritime Limited said in a statement that the trawler was later persuaded to accept supplies.

5:20pm (15:20 GMT):  The passengers call Alarm Phone saying the boat is not moving and the captain fled on a smaller boat. They add that they need food and water.

6:30pm (16:30 GMT): The Greek coastguard says it observed the boat by helicopter and it was “sailing on a steady course”.

Men transfer body bags carrying migrants
Men transfer body bags holding refugees who died after their boat capsized in the open sea off Greece early on June 14, 2023 [Stelios Misinas/Reuters]

Greek officials say they were faced with a dilemma on what to do with a vessel that had repeatedly declined offers of assistance as they worried that even the slightest shift could unbalance the boat.

6:55pm (16:55 GMT): Soufi writes that migrants on board tell her six people died and another two were very sick. No other account has mentioned deaths prior to the shipwreck.

8:05pm (18:05 GMT): Alarm Phone is informed by the passengers that they received water from the merchant vessel Lucky Sailor and they have been in contact with the police. Alarm Phone also notices that a second merchant vessel, the Faithful Warrior, is close to the boat.

9:00pm (19:00 GMT): Greek authorities say they asked a second, Greek-flagged, merchant vessel to deliver water, and allowed the Lucky Sailor to leave.

10:40pm (20:40 GMT): A Coast Guard boat from Crete reaches the trawler and remains nearby until it sank. According to the Coast Guard, the vessel “discreetly observed” the trawler from a distance. Once again, the Coast Guard said, the trawler did not appear to have any problems and was moving “at a steady course and speed.”

11:00pm (21:00 GMT): Shortly after 11pm, Soufi writes that the trawler began rocking as its passengers tried to catch water bottles from another vessel. According to people on board, ropes were tied to the ship, destabilising it and causing a “state of panic,” she said.

12:46am Wednesday (22:46 GMT): Alarm Phone reports its last contact with the boat in distress. All it hears is: “Hello, my friend. … The ship you send is …” The call cuts off.

The Greek coastguard says merchant ships delivered supplies and observed the vessel until the morning when the satellite phone user reports a problem with the engine.

About 40 minutes later, according to the coastguard statement, the vessel began to rock violently and sank.

The Greek coastguard says the boat’s engine stopped working shortly before 1am on Wednesday (23:00 GMT Tuesday) and the vessel later capsized, sinking in about 10 to 15 minutes.

Who says what?

Coastguard experts believe the boat may have run out of fuel or experienced engine trouble and the movement of passengers caused it to list and capsize.

They suggest the boat might have capsized earlier had they attempted to intervene.

But Greece’s leftist former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says the passengers had “called for help”.

“What sort of protocol does not call for the rescue … of an overloaded boat about to sink?” he asked.

Soufi says in a reconstruction posted on Facebook that the Greek coastguard had been towing the ship before it capsized.

According to messages between Soufi and the passengers, the Greek coastguard tied a rope to the fishing vessel.

The activist said later in a voice memo that “they never expressed the will to continue sailing to Italy,” or refused assistance from Greece. “They were in danger and needed help.”

Greek parliamentarian Kriton Arsenis, who spoke to some survivors in Kalamata, confirms the account and accuses the coastguard of trying to move the boat into Italian waters.

Greek authorities did not mention any attempt to tow the boat in their statements following the shipwreck.

The report from the Lucky Sailor said no lines were tied to the trawler, and supplies were delivered in watertight barrels tied to a rope.

Commander Nikos Alexiou told Greek channel Ant1 TV that the Coast Guard wanted to check on the trawler’s condition, but people on board again refused help and untied the rope before continuing course.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies