ROME (AP) — The rickety fishing boat was the third of the night to head toward the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, overloaded with African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Most never reached shore.
After the boat started taking on water, someone on board set a fire to get the attention of passing ships. The flames spread and panicked passengers surged to one side to avoid the fire. The vessel capsized, and hundreds of men, women and children who didn't know how to swim were flung into the Mediterranean Sea.
At least 114 people died and some 200 were still unaccounted for late Thursday, Italian officials said.
"We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances," said Pietro Bartolo, chief of Lampedusa health services.
It was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous crossing thousands make each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests.
Lampedusa, 70 miles (113 kilometers) off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.
"It's an immense tragedy," Mayor Giusi Nicolini said.
Between 450 and 500 people were believed to be on board the boat, which set sail from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and capsized about a half-mile from Lampedusa; health commissioner Antonio Candela said only 159 were rescued.
Bartolo initially put the death toll at 94 but said it would certainly rise as search operations continued. Italian coast guard divers later reported seeing another 20 bodies on the ocean floor.
The deaths of so many people may have come down to the lack of a cellphone.
The 66-foot (20-meter) boat was carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia, Italian coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla told The Associated Press.
It nearly reached its destination, getting as far as nearby Conigli island before it began taking on water, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters.
Usually, smugglers have mobile or satellite phones to call for help when they near shore or run into trouble. Instead, someone on this boat set fire to a piece of material to attract the attention of passing ships, he said.
Only three of the estimated 100 women on board were rescued — and none of the 10 children were saved, said Simona Moscarelli, of the International Organization for Migration in Rome. Two of the dead women were pregnant.
"Most of them can't swim," she told the AP. "Only the strongest survived."
Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the region searched for survivors. Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens at Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicolored tarps on the docks.