At least 79 dead after overcrowded migrant vessel sinks off Greece; hundreds may be missing

This undated handout image provided by Greece's coast guard on Wednesday shows scores of people covering practically every free stretch of deck on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece.(Hellenic Coast Guard via AP)

KALAMATA, Greece — A fishing boat crammed to the gunwales with migrants trying to reach Europe capsized and sank Wednesday off the coast of Greece, authorities said, leaving at least 79 dead and many more missing in one of the worst disasters of its kind this year.

Coast guard, navy and merchant vessels and aircraft fanned out for a vast search-and-rescue operation set to continue overnight. It was unclear how many passengers were missing, but some initial reports suggested hundreds of people may have been aboard when the boat went down far from shore.

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An aerial photograph of the battered blue vessel released by the Greek coast guard showed scores of people covering practically every inch of deck.

Greece’s caretaker prime minister, Ioannis Sarmas, declared three days of national mourning, “with our thoughts on all the victims of the ruthless smugglers who exploit human unhappiness.

Coast guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou told state ERT TV that it was impossible to accurately estimate the number of passengers.

He said it appeared that the 25- to 30-meter (80- to 100-foot) vessel capsized after people abruptly moved to one side.

“The outer deck was full of people, and we presume that the interior (of the vessel) would also have been full,” he said. “It looks as if there was a shift among the people who were crammed on board, and it capsized.”

A coast guard statement said efforts by its own ships and merchant vessels to assist the boat were repeatedly rebuffed, with people on board insisting they wanted to continue to Italy. Coast guard officials said the trawler’s engines broke down around 1:40 a.m. Wednesday, and just under an hour later, the ship started to list abruptly from side to side before capsizing.

The ship sank 10 to 15 minutes later, the statement said.

Ioannis Zafiropoulos, deputy mayor of the southern port city of Kalamata, where survivors were taken, said that his information indicated there were “more than 500 people” on board.

Authorities said 104 people were rescued after the sinking in international waters about 75 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of Greece’s southern Peloponnese peninsula.

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