Deep sea divers "unpacked a wall of people" from the hull of a smuggler's trawler on the sea floor near this Italian island on Monday, gingerly untangling the dead would-be migrants in the latest and most painstaking phase of a recovery operation following the ship's fiery capsizing.
It was the first time the divers had been able to reach the hull, and authorities said 38 more bodies were recovered, raising the death toll from last Thursday's tragedy to 232. Scores more are believed missing; most, if not all, were Eritreans trying to reach Europe in search of asylum and a better life.
"They unpacked a wall of people," said Navy Capt. Paolo Trucco of the deep sea specialists. The bodies "were so entwined, one with the other, it is indescribable. They were so trapped they were difficult to pull out."
Deep sea divers in their weighted suits and sturdy port-holed helmets were able to spend up to 30 minutes at a time at the site of the wreck 47 meters (154 feet) below the surface — much more than a scuba diver's typical seven to 10 minutes at that depth.
This allowed them to remove debris that was still floating around inside narrow passage ways to reach the vessel's hull. "Mattresses, blankets, stairs. Anything that would float. Imagine if you put a house in a centrifuge and you see what winds up in the air. That is what happened," Trucco said.
Diver Marco Presti said the bodies were packed together when the ship capsized, and he and his colleagues had to pull each out by the arms. "One diver after the other, we passed them from one to the other, and placed them on the stern of the boat," he said.
Coast Guard Capt. Filippo Marini estimated it would take two more days to complete the search and recovery mission.
Only 155 of the migrants survived the fiery shipwreck. Survivors have said there were at least 500 people aboard the 18-meter-long (59-foot) boat when it sank.
Diver Riccardo Nobile, who did multiple dives on Sunday when 83 bodies were recovered in easier to reach areas, said he waited for more than an hour among the corpses on a recovery boat as other divers took their turns. Divers from the Navy, Coast Guard, Carabinieri military police and the fire department have done rotations.
"It was difficult to look straight at their faces, to see their wounds, see their tormented expressions, their outstretched arms," Nobile said. "It was extremely difficult. But this is our job."
The ship had arrived within sight of Lampedusa, a tiny island that is Italy's southernmost point, after two days of sailing from Libya when a fire set to draw the attention of potential rescuers sparked a panic on board, leading the vessel to capsize.
Tens of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East try to cross the Mediterranean Sea each year, seeking a better life in Europe. Hundreds die in the process.