ROME — The rickety fishing boat was the third of the night to head toward the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, overloaded with African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Most never reached shore.
After the boat started taking on water, someone on board set a small fire to get the attention of passing ships. The flames spread and panicked passengers surged to one side away from the fire. The vessel capsized, and hundreds of men, women and children were flung into the Mediterranean Sea. Many didn't know how to swim.
At least 114 people died and about 200 were still unaccounted for late Thursday, Italian officials said.
"We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances," said Pietro Bartolo, chief of Lampedusa health services.
It was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous crossing thousands make each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head for the journey aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats that lack life vests.
Lampedusa, 70 miles off Tunisia and closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been at the center of wave after wave of illegal immigration.
Between 450 and 500 people were thought to be on board the 66-foot boat, which set sail from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, carrying migrants from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia. The boat capsized about a half-mile from Lampedusa; health commissioner Antonio Candela said only 159 were rescued.
"It's an immense tragedy," Mayor Giusi Nicolini said.
Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the region searched for survivors. Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens at Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicolored tarps on the docks.
Survivors packed Lampedusa's detention center for migrants, along with those aboard the two other smugglers' boats, which reached shore safely. More than 1,000 people were squeezed into a space built for 250. Medical workers scrambled to treat the injured.
Migrants who arrive in Lampedusa are processed in centers, screened for asylum and often sent back home.