More than 300 people, mainly Somalian or Eritrean, yesterday drowned or were feared dead less than half a mile off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
The “boat people” ship, containing an estimated 450 to 500 men, women and children, sank after a fire broke out as it came close to the shoreline.
Last night 104 bodies had been accounted for, with some 200 people still missing. It was not clear last night just how the fire broke out, but rescue workers believe that it may have been accidentally started by the migrants when they set fire to a large sheet in order to attract attention after the ship broke down.
Given that the ship was out of mobile phone range, the migrants had no other method of attracting the attention of any other ships in the area.
Some of the 155 survivors reported yesterday that two or three fishing boats did respond to their signals but they did not stop to help.
The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, was in tears as she told Italian state radio of the nightmare scenes that she and rescue workers had witnessed.
Cries for help
One group of young people from Lampedusa, who had organised to go out early yesterday morning on a fishing trip, reported that they had been awakened at about 6.30am by the screams and cries for help from the migrants.
When the young people sailed their yacht out to the stricken boat, they were confronted with a horrific vision, as hundreds of people struggled in the rough seas. All those who arrived first at the sinking reported the horror of having to choose who to save, and of having to pull away from drowning people for fear that they would sink themselves if they took on too many migrants.
Francesco Colapinta (24), who was out on a small fishing boat with two uncles, said that his boat had pulled 20 people, including two dead, out of the water before they turned their boat back, fearing for their own safety.
By the time the second wave of official rescue workers arrived at the ship, the vessel had already sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean, leaving behind the hellish vision of a sea of bodies floating on the surface of the water.
In Rome, the impact of the tragedy was such that a whole series of political meetings, due to be held in the wake of Wednesday's dramatic confidence vote in parliament, were immediately postponed, with Lampedusa mayor Ms Nicolini inviting prime minister Enrico Letta to "come down to the island and help me count the bodies".
Meanwhile, interior minister Angelino Alfano touched on a polemical note when he invited the European Commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, to visit Lampedusa and see the aftermath of the tragedy for herself.
Successive Italian governments have complained over the last 20 years that because of its geographical position and its 5,000-mile long coastline, Italy is regularly left to deal with humanitarian tragedies such as this on its own.
Pope Francis, who today makes a historic trip to Assisi, home of St Francis, interrupted a Vatican address yesterday to express his horror, saying: "The only word that comes to mind is shame, total shame . . . We must unite our forces so that similar tragedies do not happen again."
Last July, the pope chose Lampedusa as the destination for his first official trip outside of Rome, in order to highlight the human cost of the north-south divide.
During his visit, Francis railed against modern man’s “culture of comfort”, saying that it had led to the “globalisation of indifference”.