ROME (AP) — The Italian navy said Wednesday it has recovered the migrant ship that sank off Sicily last year with an estimated 700-800 people aboard in one of the worst known tragedies of the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
The navy said it had raised the boat from a depth of 370 meters (1,214 feet). The wreck is being kept in a refrigerated transport structure for the trip to port in Sicily, where forensic experts will begin trying to identify the victims.
A press conference to explain details of the operation is scheduled for Thursday, the navy said.
The April 18, 2015 wreck remains one of the deadliest on record, though the real number of drownings will never be known. On that night, the boat carrying between 700 and 800 migrants, most of them African, capsized as a civilian freighter approached.
Most passengers were locked below decks; only 28 survived.
The sinking sparked renewed outrage and soul-searching in European capitals, which agreed to send in EU naval reinforcements to cast a wider safety net to try to rescue the waves of migrants leaving Libya on smugglers’ boats.
While tens of thousands have been rescued, thousands of others have drowned: During one particularly deadly three-day period last month, an estimated 700 migrants died, including those aboard a huge, overcrowded fishing ship that capsized as rescuers filmed the horror.
Most of the migrant boats that sink are never recovered, and the dead are never exhumed or identified. Soon after the 2015 tragedy, though, Italy pledged to recover the wreck and is hoping that the exercise will help create a European network to identify victims by cross-checking data.
The navy launched the complicated recovery operation this past spring; navy divers over the previous months had already recovered some 169 bodies found near the wreckage, located some 85 miles (130 kilometers) off Libya’s coast.
The navy used a specially designed robotic apparatus to raise the boat, which was being towed to port in Sicily by the navy barge Ievoli Ivory.
Italy’s southern islands are the main destinations for countless numbers of smuggling boats launched from the shores of lawless Libya each week packed with people seeking jobs and safety in Europe.
Humanitarian organizations and investigating authorities typically rely on survivors’ accounts to piece together how many people may have been killed during a capsizing, relying on overlapping accounts to try to establish a level of veracity.