Some 135 kilometers off the coast of Libya, 70 technicians are working around the clock to raise a sunken smuggler’s ship from a watery grave more than 365 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. The old fishing vessel, a mere 20 meters long, went down more than a year ago with as many as 950 migrants crammed onboard (see video, below). Only 28 survived, and although dozens of bodies have been recovered, the rest are believed to be inside the boat, perhaps locked in chambers belowdecks. Raising the vessel will cast a spotlight on the human cost of the migrant crisis gripping Europe, and it will give scientists a unique, albeit morbid, opportunity for forensic study.

Once the boat is lifted it will be placed ona huge carrier ship, frozen with liquid nitrogen to preserve the dead bodies and brought to Sicily. Italy’s Fire Brigade will extract the bodies and a team of volunteer forensics experts and geneticists will start the painstaking task of cataloguing the dead, made all the more complicated by the fact that there is no passenger list and little DNA provided to match the victims. The plan is to make a database of the corpses with details such as 3-D cranium scans, DNA samples and photos. The detailed process will also give forensic scientists valuable insight into how seawater affects deceased bodies, as they examine people of all ages and nationalities who died at the exact same moment under the same conditions.

In the early morning hours of April 18, 2015, around 200 mostly African migrants crowded into a rubber dinghy on the sandy shores near the port of Misrata, Libya. They headed eight kilometers out to sea where a rickety wooden fishing boat was waiting with around 700 others whose dream was to make it to Italy’s coast. The migrants and refugees had paid smugglers hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars for passage to Europe, according to some of the 28 survivors who talked to reporters after the accident. Those who paid the most got a spot on the upper and outer decks. The rest, mostly women with babies and young children, were sent to the lower decks to help balance out the overloaded boat’s weight.

The smugglers reportedly left two men in charge of the boat: a 27-year-old Tunisian named Mohammed Ali Malek and a 25-year-old Syrian named Mahmud Bikhit. According to survivors, their partners gave them a satellite phone with the Italian coast guard SOS number on speed-dial, and not much else. Malek and Bikhit survived and are standing trial for human trafficking and multiple manslaughter counts.

The fishing vessel, like most smugglers’ ships in the waters between Libya and Italy, had been decommissioned and declared unseaworthy, its identifying numbers scratched off and flag removed. Fishermen make very little selling such boats for scrap but human traffickers are willing to pay double the scrap price for the vessels that still float. This particular ship was especially valuable because of its size—nearly twice that of most fishing boats used for trafficking—so it meant a hefty profit for traffickers who run a business that generates millions of dollars a year, as estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

A few hours into the journey someone on the migrant ship called the Italian coast guard, which set off a series of events that are all too common off Libyan waters. Because no coast guard vessels were nearby, the King Jacob, a 150-meter Portuguese cargo ship, answered the distress call. When it reached the smugglers’ ship, the cargo crew shined spotlights and lowered a ladder to help the migrants climb onboard. But Malek, then at the helm of the overweight migrant ship and high on marijuana and drunk on wine, according to passengers in sworn affidavits, apparently turned sharply and slammed into the cargo vessel, causing the migrants to all move to one side, upsetting the delicate balance and sinking the smugglers’ ship.

There are no passenger lists or tickets issued in the human trafficking business, so no one may know for sure how many people started the journey. But they will soon know how many sank with the ship. The Italian navy, with the help of Impresub Diving and Marine Contractor, are raising the ship so they can count and try to identify the dead. The plan was announced last summer when Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi allocated funds for the operation, vowing to “give every one of the migrants a decent burial.”

On April 18, 2016, the first anniversary of the sinking, recovery vessels led by the Italian navy set out for the site, which they had identified last summer with the help of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called Pegaso. They have used Pegaso’s mechanical arm to collect 169 bodies in a large plastic bag and bring them to the surface. Those bodies are now in Sicily, where they are being cold-stored until the rest of the passengers can be recovered.

On April 27 the recovery team’s fleet of ROVs successfully reached the wreckage once again and closed all the visible openings of the ship to ensure that no bodies would be lost at sea when it is raised. The ROVs also removed a mast and railings that could interfere with the procedure.

On May 9 the ROVs stabilized the wreckage and attached cables that would lift it. The crew also recovered two additional bodies. The lifting process was supposed to take about a day, but bad weather and rough seas have hampered efforts, and technicians hope to have the ship raised by this weekend.

This large military vessel will carry the raised smuggler ship to a port in Sicily.
Courtesy of the Italian navy (Marina Militare)

The ghost ship is being hoisted to the surface by a vessel called the Ievoli Ivory, which is commonly used in offshore drilling. The migrant wreck will be placed on a massive platform barge and inside a refrigerated tent to try to preserve the cold conditions offered by the deep sea. Workers will periodically spray liquid nitrogen inside the tent to maintain a low temperature and slow decomposition once the wreck is exposed to the warm air.

The Italian navy will then bring the wreck to Sicily, some 320 kilometers away, where it will be placed in a cold storage tent on a NATO military base near Syracuse, Sicily. Any bodies that are recovered during the lifting will be kept in a separate cold compartment on a navy support vessel and taken to the forensic staging area.

Italy’s Fire Brigade will employ response procedures they would normally use during a biological or chemical attack. The bodies will be put into freezer trucks and the boat will be destroyed after it has been examined by police investigators for signs that the lower level doors were locked as well as other indicators that the passengers were held in captivity and may even have been tortured.

Scientists will then thaw out four to six bodies at a time for examination. The University of Milan’s Biomedical Sciences department will lead a team of 24 forensic scientists and geneticists who have been volunteered by their medical universities across Italy and will start the painstaking process of cataloguing the bodies. The forensic team will also use the process as a learning opportunity.

The specialists will utilize protocols established by the International Committee of the Red Cross, along with Interpol in regard to disaster victim identification. First the dead will be categorized by their level of decomposition, separated into groups of “well conserved,” “decomposed” and “skeletal.” Single bones or bodily parts will be treated as individuals, according to the Italian protocol for the project.

A few dozen families who believe their loved ones might have been on the ill-fated ship have provided DNA specimens and dental records but the vast majority of the victims will be catalogued in a database by their sex, approximate age and any identifying characteristics that are still identifiable, along with their DNA. The mostly nameless profiles will also include hair samples, dental records and a photo of the corpse.

The Italian government has promised that each body will be cleaned and measured. Some will be x-rayed or scanned in 3-D, depending on the level of decomposition and, in some cases, obvious injuries. Bodily fluids will be taken from the best preserved of the victims for study and bone samples will be taken from others. Personal effects still on the bodies will be removed and stored for eventual restitution to family members who may be able to find their loved one via the database details.

Once all the available data is gathered for each of the hundreds of victims, the nameless will be buried in Sicily with identifying markers on their graves alongside thousands of other nameless victims who have been lost at sea. The database will be available online for individuals who are searching for a lost loved one. If someone provides adequate evidence for a match, the Italian government will help defray the cost to repatriate the remains.