Cutro: Beach of death, grief and reckoning

A local fisherman tells of his attempts to rescue migrants whose boat broke apart and splintered at dawn on 26 February on the southern Italian coast just meters from the shore. 68 bodies have been pulled from the water but authorities say there are still between 27 and 47 people missing. 80 people survived the shipwreck. They include Afghans, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iraqis and Somalis.

By Salvatore Cernuzio - Cutro

"There, there, where that black thing is". Vincenzo points to a spot to the right of the beach at Steccato di Cutro: it’s where at 6.30am on Saturday morning, the body of a 2-and-a-half-year-old boy was found. "His head was swollen... Now that the bodies are disfigured, it is even harder to recover them. They are in a condition best left unsaid." The little boy had been in the water since last Sunday, since the tragedy that shocked the city of Crotone, Calabria, Italy, and the world: the shipwreck of a migrant boat that had set sail from Turkey and that hit a shoal, throwing about 180 people overboard while the sea was rough and the waves were up to four-metres-high. "The boat looked as though it had been in a washing machine.” Witnesses tell of “pieces upon pieces, boards smashed."

Sixty-nine people have been found dead so far, including the child who resurfaced today from the waters of the Ionian Sea. That number soon turned to 70 when the body of a 12 or 13 year-old boy was found on a nearby beach in Botricello. More than forty people are still presumed missing, possibly caught in the rocks on the opposite side of the shipwreck site. The wind and the fine, but driving rain, that has been making the water murky are hampering the work of divers and Civil Defence teams .

Vincenzo’s testimony

50-year-old Vincenzo Luciani is a local fisherman who was on the beach on Saturday morning when the toddler was brought to shore. He was also there at dawn on 26 February. He describes the dramatic moment when the waves started returning bodies. "I was sleeping and I got a phone call from a friend saying: 'Vincé, run, I hear screams, I don't know what's happening!' I live nearby, I got dressed and five minutes later I was here. When I arrived I saw some frightening images but I didn't have time to think about anything because I jumped into the water to reach the people in the waves. I thought they were alive but they were all dead. There was a powerful current, I had a hard time bringing them to the beach because the undertow took them back again. I would take them to the beach and the sea would take them back... It was a huge effort.”

Vincenzo in his white Nissan on Cutro beach
Vincenzo in his white Nissan on Cutro beach

The child he could not save

The fisherman’s blue eyes are reddened by little sleep and salt: “The further I looked, the more bodies I saw,” he says, “even children”. It is the image of a child, he adds, that shocked him so much that it took away his sleep and appetite for days: "He was small, I picked him up in the water, his eyes were open, he seemed to be looking at me. I shouted: this one's alive, we'll save him! Instead when I put him on the shore, I saw that he was no longer breathing and I closed his eyes. I haven't been able to forget that scene for a week”.

Ghostly scene

Since that day, the fisherman has practically lived on the beach, where the scenario, a week after the shipwreck, is still ghostly. Almost warlike. There are shoes - mismatched, destroyed, soaked in the sand, or placed under a cross cobbled together with two wooden rods and some steel wire - all along the coast. And there are socks, packets of crackers, a life jacket, a medicine bottle, a can of Red Bull, a bouquet of mimosas placed under a piece of the wreck lying on its side, put there perhaps, to mark 8 March, Women’s Day, an occurrence the drowned women will not be able to celebrate. No one has touched anything since Sunday, the beach seems crystallised in that hour of death and despair. A continuous stream of inhabitants of nearby Crotone, despite the bad weather and roads rendered almost impassable due to potholes and mud, are like pilgrims treading this difficult path to the place that has been called the 'beach of sorrow'. Many of them took part, last night, in a Stations of the Cross organised by the Archdiocese of Crotone in the local cathedral, guided by meditations from Pope Francis' words on migration. Another Way of the Cross will be held tomorrow, 5 March, along the same beach with the title With Christ among migrants before the indifference of the powerful.

a shoe amidst the seaweed on Cutro beach
a shoe amidst the seaweed on Cutro beach

Search for the missing

Vincenzo does not participate in the ongoing search efforts. He just stands on the beach or seeks shelter from the cold inside his white Nissan. It is the only car close to the shore, the other cars, those of the Municipal Police, of the Civil Defence, and of Misericordie volunteers are parked further back, next to the mobile emergency response centre blue tent. He wants to be there, monitoring the situation day and night, together with operators and volunteers, looking for missing persons. There is someone ankle-deep in the sea, with a pair of binoculars: "Maybe some waves will bring something else back," he comments bitterly. Every shadow below the surface of the water sets the teams into action.

Ongoing search operations on Cutro beach
Ongoing search operations on Cutro beach


The rhythm of the past days continues unabated: "We've been here since 4 a.m., we were supposed to take a break this morning but we're going on," says a volunteer. "Searching, searching, searching: this is what we do from morning to night. Even at night.” Vincenzo says he equipped himself with a searchlight: “it's a duty to search. It is a duty towards people like the Afghan woman who came to the beach yesterday to beg the fisherman to find her son's body. "I was really grieved... She held my arm and using a phone translator she said: 'Please find my son...'.  Of her other two sons, one is dead and the other is missing. I promised to try my best”.

Why? "I made a promise to this mother, I made the same promise to a brother who came yesterday from France. He sent me a photograph and his telephone number and said: ‘please, if you find this person call me.’ I also made a promise to myself: how can one leave them in the sea? This keeps me from sleeping at night".

A twig of mimosa under a shard of the wreck
A twig of mimosa under a shard of the wreck


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04 March 2023, 17:50