Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I would do it again

Sunday afternood, about 5 pm, the fishing ship Chico from Porto Palo in Sicily was at the end of its third and last day at sea. Its crew had caught 49 swordfish. They saw a ship with 151 aspiring immigrants on board, in serious difficulty. They called the Capitaneria di Porto in Augusta and were placed into contact with the one in Rome. Scared, and worried of the approaching dark, they cut the nets, took the women and children on board, ran a line to the drifing wreck, and started off towards Malta, the nearest destination.

The situation on board was dramatic. One woman had a cardiac arrest and needed rescuscitation. Another fainted from exhaustion. It was while soccurring this woman that the crew revealed that they were being towed towards Malta and not Italy. All hell broke loose. People started jumping in the sea. The women clutched the children and threatened to follow suit.

At this point the captain received from the Capitaneria in Rome something that seems to have been along these lines: "Do whatever you have to do to save the lives of those people there, even if it means coming ashore in Italy."

Which is what the captain of the Chico elected to do.

Once reached Pollazzo, in Sicily, the captain and crew of the Chico were questioned by the police, and subsequently charged with complicity in illegal immigration, and the ship seized.

The captain is bitter. What he said was: "My father and his father have been fishermen before me, I know what it means to die at sea. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, because you're not even left with a corpse to grieve over. I am a seaman, and at sea solidarity is life. I would do it again."

A couple of years ago, a boat full of people - about 180 of them - sank off Porto Palo on Christmas night. News of the wreck came ashore but was not believed, because no corpses could be found. And no corpses could be found because the fishermen of Porto Palo, snagging first bodies and then parts of bodies and then bones in their nets, were spooked and horrified and siezed with pity - but they also knew they would be facing problems and aggravation and their ship stuck at shore if they reported it. So they chucked them overboard again. This went of for years, until the secret got out and one journalist followed up with the story, and Porto Palo was shamed, despite trying to explain that they would have acted much differently if those people had still been alive. Indignation was poured on the heartless people of the sea town who would chuck skulls and arms and legs back to the sea.

The wreck, and its bodies, is still at the bottom of the sea despite appeals from the relatives and several Italian public figures including members of both houses of the Parliament and a couple of Nobel Laureate to retreive it and give a proper burial to the bodies.

And when the fishermen of Porto Palo do happen on live bodies at sea, this is what they get.

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