- Nick Peake in Kalamata & George Wright in London
- BBC News
Survivors of a fishing boat that sank off southern Greece in one of Europe’s worst migrant disasters say there may have been up to 100 children on board.
At least 78 people have already been confirmed dead in the disaster.
But many more are still missing at sea, with reports suggesting up to 750 people were on board.
The country’s coast guard has previously been criticized for not intervening, but officials say they have been denied their assistance.
Rescuers are still scouring the Greek seabed in a major search operation as hope of finding more survivors dwindles.
The harrowing accounts of the large numbers of women and children aboard the ship came mostly from the doctors who treated the male survivors.
A senior doctor at Kalamata General Hospital, which treated survivors of Wednesday’s shipwreck, told the BBC there were 100 children on board.
Dr Manolis Makharis, head of cardiology, said: “They (survivors) told us there were children at the bottom of the ship. Children and women.”
He said two patients gave estimated figures.
“One told me about 100 children, the other about 50, so I don’t know the truth – but it’s a lot,” he added.
He and his team use mobile phones to communicate with those brought to safety.
The doctor said all 30 patients he treated would survive as they were treated for hyperthermia, pneumonia and dehydration.
Dr Maharis said he believed 600 people may have died in the disaster.
“The exact number of people on the boat is 750. That’s the exact number that everyone told me about it,” he added.
Dr Maharis said the families of some of the missing Egyptian children had sent him photographs of their young relatives in the hope that he would identify them after treating them.
“It’s a tragedy,” he said. “Everyone in Europe must not accept this situation. We have to do something. Everyone has to do something so that it doesn’t happen again.”
A reporter from Greece’s ANT1 channel asked the survivor if there were 100 children on board, to which the survivor replied: “Yes.”
The charity Save the Children also gave the same number, citing testimonies from survivors. The BBC could not independently verify this figure.
But Greek government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris said there were unconfirmed reports that up to 750 people were on board.
“We don’t know what was in the hold… but we do know that many kidnappers lock people up to maintain control,” he told public broadcaster ERT.
Families of some of the missing have come to Kalamata in search of their loved ones.
“My relatives were on the boat,” said Aftab, who traveled from Britain, adding that at least four of his relatives from Pakistan were unaccounted for.
“We got confirmation. We found one of the relatives [the rescue centre]. But we haven’t caught the others yet,” he told the BBC.
A Syrian man in the Netherlands was left devastated after his wife and brother-in-law were reported missing.
Activist Nawal Choubi was the first to raise the alarm after being contacted by those on the boat on Tuesday morning. He also believes there were about 750 people on board.
The Greek coast guard said the boat went down about 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Pylos shortly after 02:04 a.m. local time on Wednesday.
A timeline provided by the Coast Guard said initial contact with the fishing boat was made at 14:00 (11:00 GMT) the previous day and no request for assistance was made.
The Greek Shipping Ministry has been in contact with the boat several times and is said to want to sail to Italy. A Maltese-flagged ship delivered food and water at 18:00, and another boat delivered water three hours later.
Then at 01:40 on Wednesday, a person on the boat reportedly notified the Greek Coast Guard that the vessel’s engine had malfunctioned.
In no time, the boat capsized and sank completely within 10 to 15 minutes. A search and rescue operation was initiated but complicated by high winds.
A Coast Guard spokesperson told ERT that the boat’s engine malfunctioned in the early hours of Wednesday morning, after which the occupants started moving around, causing it to capsize. All those rescued were men, he said.
The alarm phone, an emergency helpline for migrants in trouble at sea, received the first call from the boat an hour after the Coast Guard was first contacted on Tuesday.
In a Facebook post, Ms Soufi said the situation became “complicated” when a rescue boat approached the vessel and tied a rope to it as it threw water bottles.
He said some people on board were in “extreme danger” because of fears the dinghy would capsize and that fights on board for water could capsize. The boat then moved from there.
Ms Soufi said she had been in contact with the people on board until 23:00 local time, assuring them that the Greek Coast Guard would rescue them.
In his final call, a man told her: “I have a feeling this will be our last night.”
He said people have “no intention of continuing” to Italy and “absolutely need help with water”.
There may be conflicting accounts as the Coast Guard spoke to the crew, while Ms Soufy and the alarm phone spoke to those on board.
The alarm phone complaint said the Coast Guard “knew several hours in advance that the vessel was in distress” and that authorities were “informed by various sources” that the vessel was in trouble.
Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Kalamata on Thursday to meet survivors of the shipwreck.
He asked: “Why, when the authorities saw that an overloaded ship with more than 700 people on board was about to sink in an emergency, did they not force it to be saved?”
Jérôme Tubiana of Médecins Sans Frontières told French radio that European and Greek authorities should have intervened earlier.
“It’s shocking to hear that the Frontex flew over the boat and nobody intervened because the boat refused all offers of help … an overloaded boat is a boat in distress.”
Italy’s interior minister told SkyTG24 that the disaster occurred “in Greece’s search and rescue area, under that country’s specific responsibility”.
The coast guard says an air and sea search for survivors continues, 47 miles southwest of Pylos, and Greece observes three days of mourning.
Campaigning has been suspended ahead of the June 25 parliamentary elections and a televised debate between the frontrunners scheduled for Thursday has been cancelled.
Greece is one of the main routes to the EU for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Last month, the Greek government came under international criticism over video footage showing the forced evacuation of migrants adrift at sea.
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