Mohamed Mabrouk hoped to sail from Egypt to a better future in Europe. But just before sunrise on Wednesday, the teen called his uncle in a panic as the boat carrying him and hundreds more migrants across the Mediterranean was overwhelmed by water.
Saeed Abu Hamed, 37, was asleep at home when his phone rang. He recalls hearing the anguished voice of his nephew repeating: “Uncle help me! Uncle help me! People are dying around me, the boat is sinking, water is coming in from all sides.”
“I heard people screaming ‘help us’ in the background. It was horrifying. I don’t know how I will be able to forget this,” he told Reuters.
Mabrouk was one of about 169 people to survive.
About 52 bodies have been recovered so far, but security officials said almost 600 people may have been squeezed aboard the wooden vessel, suggesting hundreds more may have perished in what is just the latest disaster for migrants desperate to reach Europe.
More and more people have been trying to cross to Italy from the African coast over the summer months, particularly from Libya, where people-traffickers operate with relative impunity.
But Egypt has come under closer scrutiny this year because a growing number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are using it as an alternative route. Those on the boat that sank included people from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as Egyptians.
One survivor said the vessel had waited for two days at sea so the smugglers could squeeze more migrants on board before heading north. But as they climbed in, the boat began to capsize. Panic spread as the boat tilted, casting people overboard.
Ahmed Darwish, 27, said he was in the water for seven hours.
“The captain of the ship couldn’t control the boat any more … We told him this boat won’t take us there safely … The captain couldn’t move the boat; it kept swaying until it fell on its side,” Darwish said, as he lay in a blue gown on a bed at the public hospital in the coastal village of Burg Rashed.
Darwish described spotting a fishing boat about a kilometre away and desperately trying to attract its attention, afraid it would not see his head bobbing above the waves.
“I had a bag in my hand, I kept struggling against the water while the water struggled against me until they finally saw me and waved back with a white shirt … Within seconds I saw them turn the boat and come like a rocket to save me,” he said.
Egypt’s military said its coastguard had busted a people-trafficking operation and led a life-saving rescue operation.
But angry relatives complained of official inaction, saying it was the local fishermen who had saved lives.
Another relative of someone on board, Gamal Assad, said he received a call from his 17-year-old brother, Bassem, around 5 a.m.
“I immediately called the coastguard, but they didn’t move at all. The fishing boats saved them,” Assad said.
As dozens of relatives waited for news of their loved ones near the coastguard post on Wednesday night, a Reuters witness saw a fishing boat carrying 12 bodies arrive.
Distraught at the sight of bodies being carried of the boat, relatives shouted at military and coastguard officials, complaining they had done too little to save lives when the vessel had capsized so close to the Egyptian coast.
“If we were foreigners, Italians or French, you would have done something,” yelled one of the relatives.