ITALY - Locals on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa fought back tears as they spoke of the desperate rush to haul dozens of drowning immigrants out of the sea as hundreds around them sank into the black waters.
"We were spending the night on our boat. We heard screams, and we rushed to see what was going on and found a nightmarish situation," Alessandro Marino, a shopkeeper on Lampedusa, told AFP.
"There were between 150 and 200 people in the water. We managed to save 47 of them. Any more and we risked sinking too," he said.
Marino and his friend Sharanna Buonocorso were the first on the scene after a boat with up to 500 African asylum seekers caught fire and sank just a few hundred metres off shore in the worst recent refugee disaster in the Mediterranean.
"Many of them were crying. Lots were naked, to give themselves the best chance of staying afloat," said an exhausted-looking Buonocorso, gazing out over the port where rescuer workers had laid the first victims out in black body bags.
"Many helped pull others from the water, those who couldn't climb aboard by themselves because they had no strength left," she said, describing how the cries for help grew weaker as the minutes passed.
Around 150 survivors were rescued, and over 130 corpses found.
Those rescued said people on board had set fire to a blanket to attract the attention of coast guards after the boat began taking on water, and when the flames spread, panicked passengers rushed to one side of the vessel, flipping it over.
Dozens of people were trapped inside as it rolled over and sank and after a day's frantic search, officials said they doubted anyone else would be found alive.