A ship carrying African migrants toward Italy caught fire and capsized off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa today, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said. At least 94 bodies have been recovered so far, and 159 people rescued, but more than 200 people are unaccounted for. Pietro Bartolo, the top health official on Lampedusa, said today he expected the toll to rise as search operations continue. It was one of the deadliest accidents in recent times during the perilous crossing from Africa for migrants seeking a new life in the European Union. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano headed to Lampedusa to oversee the rescue operations first-hand. Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July, quickly sent his condolences.
"It's an immense tragedy," said Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini, adding that the dead included at least one child of about 3 and a pregnant woman. The migrants were from Eritrea, Ghana, and Somalia, the coast guard said. Coast guard ships and helicopters from across the region, as well as local fishing boats, were on the scene trying to find survivors. Nicolini said the ship had caught fire after those on board set off flares so it would be seen by passing ships. The ship apparently then capsized, spilling the passengers into the sea near Conigli island.