Some 500 refugees were holding out on an old freight ship in distress off Italy's coast. Official sea rescue missions have been phased out, and now depend on private rescuers.
It's four o'clock in the morning when the Alessandro Secondo's engines are started. The tugboat's captain, Salvatore Lupo, just received a radio call that the Italian Coast guard discovered a refugee ship off the Calabrian coast.
As the ship, named Sandy, was clearly foundering in the rough seas, one of the coast guards members went on board and captained the vessel north, toward the port of Crotone. A dangerous venture, Lupo said. "It would have been safer and much more comfortable for the refugees if he had steered the ship with the wind - that is to the south."
And closer, too, he added: it would have allowed the refugees to go ashore five to 10 hours earlier. "Instead, they're coming to Crotone," he said. Lives are at risk, the captain warned, adding that the ship is at risk, too, as no one knows what shape it's really in.
In a nutshell, Lupo suspects that the Sandy's fortunate rescue from the open seas was staged. Instead of recovering the refugees on the spot, the operation was postponed so the ship could arrive in a proper port the next day. The Navy and Coast Guard commanders, he said, could proudly present themselves as the refugees saviors.
Chilled to the bone, but finally safe
Lupo has sailed the seas for 40 years, but today even he would have preferred to stay in port: an icy wind is blowing from the north, and the cold is piercing. The Sandy is fighting the waves. "Hurry up with the tugboat," the voice of the Coast Guard at the helm of the refugee ship squawks over the Alessandro Secondo's radio."We'll fasten a tow line so you can pull us in to port."
The Coast guard appears calm. That's deceptive, said Lupo, who knows the Coast Guard's patrols are not captained by experienced sailors, and urgently need help in such situations. As the Alessandro Secondo approaches the refugee ship, the captain is stunned by the crowd of waving, bundled-up figures on deck. The freighter Sandy was once the Nordlicht, and at one point it was registered in Hamburg, the German city's name still legible under the coat of white paint spelling out the new name.
Lupo said he feels sorry for the refugees, "They have probably been on deck for the entire passage, they must be chilled to the bone." Vito Vasile, the Alessandro Secondo's helmsman, is shocked at how many children are on board, even newborn babies.
Lupo and his shipmates retrieve the tug line after two attempts, and the 40-year-old freighter is securely fastened to Salvatore Lupo's 2,000 horse power tugboat. The captain is visibly relieved. The ship is lucky to have arrived safe and sound, he said, and points to the vessel's bow that juts out of the water. "The ship is completely unbalanced, it's been sailing without the necessary ballast, so it's downright instable," the captain said. "These people really risked their lives."
Private, but uncompensated help
All of a sudden, however, the Alessandro Secondo is told to hold off before entering port.
A harbor pilot brings two senior military officers in full dress uniforms on board the refugee ship. Captain Lupo utters biting sarcasm for the commanders in their full dress uniforms, proudly striding ashore as heroes after letting hundreds of refugees wait for hours in the icy cold.
"Whatever - the operation was successful, we did our duty and helped out the best we could," Lupo said, resigned.
"Who's going to compensate me?" The Alessandro Secondo's owner Vittorio said he easily paid 600 euros for fuel, plus overtime for the crew. But there won't be any remuneration. The Italian Navy has ordered all private ship owners to help save people at sea - an immediate consequence of cutting costs in state rescue operations that led to the end of Italy's Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation.
Others reap the praise, said Lupo, but that isn't what annoys him the most. What is worse, he said, is that hundreds of shivering people had to wait so that vain officers could look good before rolling cameras.