Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

New report shows the Greece coast guard's role in boat capsizing that killed hundreds


It's been a month since hundreds of migrants died when their boat capsized off the coast of Greece. It was one of the deadliest incidents in the Mediterranean in years. Now a new investigation by the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper and its media partners shows that Greek coast guard officials failed to help for hours, and their actions may have contributed to the boat sinking. Reporter Lydia Emmanouilidou has been on the story for NPR and joins us now. Lydia, thanks so much for being with us.

LYDIA EMMANOUILIDOU: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This was a fishing trawler packed with more than 700 people. Who were they?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Yeah, these were mostly people from Pakistan, Syria and Egypt. They had set sail from Libya for Italy. Their trawler ended up in distress off the coast of Greece. The Greek coast guard responded. And then, the trawler sank in the early hours of Wednesday, June 14, and some 500 people are believed to have drowned.

SIMON: Greek authorities say they didn't record any video of this incident. They were just too busy with the rescue. How did you and your reporting partners piece together the story?

EMMANOUILIDOU: It took a lot of work from a group of us at The Guardian, the German broadcaster ARD, and the Greek investigative site Solomon. We spoke to survivors. We did digital reconstructions, reviewed court documents, and spoke with coast guard sources. And what we found is that Greece bungled what should have been an all-hands-on-deck rescue operation in the hours after the fishing trawler was first spotted. When the Greek coast guard arrived many hours later, it was already dark. And it appears they tried to tow the boat out of Greek waters presumably so this would no longer be their problem and that this led to the vessel capsizing. And we found evidence that afterward, the Greek coast guard may have tried to cover up its actions.

SIMON: Yeah. And remind us of some of the details of the people onboard that ship.

EMMANOUILIDOU: As we mentioned, most of them were from Pakistan, Syria and Egypt. One survivor I talked to - a young man who didn't want us to use his name because of the possible repercussions of talking to the media - he said that when he set sail from Libya, people were packed in so tightly on that boat that they couldn't even stand. And he saw people die of thirst. They were like that for about five days. And then, in the early hours of Wednesday, June 14, he felt the boat suddenly jolt forward.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ship - here and there, here and there. Ship...

EMMANOUILIDOU: The ship rocked right, left, right, left.


EMMANOUILIDOU: Then, the boat tipped. He heard people screaming. He found himself in the water and was eventually rescued. But he showed me photos of 15 friends and family members who were with him who he hasn't been able to find since.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I am so sad. This my friend. This my friend. This my friend. This friend. All die. All die. Very, very strong. Very smart. Very beautiful. My friend all die.

EMMANOUILIDOU: And of the hundreds of people on the ship, only 104 survived.

SIMON: Lydia, the allegation that the ship was being towed is serious. It's been made before. What do survivors say about that?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Survivors say that around midnight, the Greek coast guard vessel told them it would direct their boat towards Italian waters. Those who were on the upper deck of the trawler and could see what was happening, they say that the coast guard attached a rope to the trawler and towed it twice. And they say that this second towing is likely what caused the boat to sink. One of our partners, the investigative nonprofit Forensis, they mapped the boat's movements in those crucial final hours before the sinking. They used coordinates from obtained court documents and other sources. And this map corroborates survivors' testimonies and undermines the coast guard's version of events. The findings show the trawler changed direction and speed during some of these key moments.

SIMON: How does what you've been able to map out and report meet with the Greek coast guard's account?

EMMANOUILIDOU: It doesn't. The coast guard has denied towing the boat. We analyzed everything from their press releases and sworn testimony to the coordinates in court files. We found holes and inconsistencies that Greek authorities have refused to explain. And they didn't answer any of our detailed questions either, saying they can't comment on an ongoing investigation.

SIMON: Any indication of a cover-up?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Well, yeah. So survivors were interviewed twice, first by the Greek coast guard and then by investigating prosecutors. In the first batch, there are identical parts in several of the testimonies, almost a copy-and-paste, and they don't mention towing. But in the second batch given to a prosecutor just days later, some of those same survivors did mention towing and blamed it as the cause of the wreck. So to put this as plainly as possible - what we found is that the Greek coast guard played a role in a tragedy that was likely preventable.

SIMON: Reporter Lydia Emmanouilidou. Thank you so much for being with us.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Thank you for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.