Rome: Italy has begun the grisly task of raising a corpse-packed trawler from the seabed near Libya, a year after up to 800 migrants perished in the Mediterranean`s deadliest disaster since World War II.
Two bodies were recovered in the early stages of the delicate and complex operation being carried out by diving and marine company Impresub and heavy lifting specialists Fagioli under the supervision of the Italian coastguard.
Despite the costs and difficulties involved, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi vowed last year to salvage the wreck and give the victims decent burials as a symbol of respect for all the migrants who have died trying to reach Europe`s shores.
Around 9,000 people are known to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean since the current migrant crisis erupted in mid-2013. Aid agencies say it is likely many more disappeared without trace after being abandoned on the high seas by traffickers.
The two companies are using a specially designed device with hydraulic arms and underwater cameras to lift the wreck from its resting place, 380 metres (around 1,245 feet) down.
The perilously overcrowded migrant boat sank on the night of April 18-19 last year after running into a Portuguese freighter which had raced to its rescue, the collision sending panicked passengers stampeding to one side, causing the vessel to keel over.
Only 28 people survived. According to survivors, there had been up to 800 people packed onto the boat.
"The recovery consists in clasping the wreck with the robotic device... and bringing it to the surface without damaging it, if possible," engineer Egidio Ibba, Impresub`s director of operations, said in a video released by the navy.
All apertures on the boat have been sealed off to ensure none of the bodies within are lost as the vessel is lifted, and the navy said bits of the trawler had been removed to ensure a smooth lift to the surface.The Ievoli Ivory offshore tug ship, kitted out with the vast yellow hydraulic arms, has a crew of 20 as well as 35 technicians on board.
It began lifting the doomed ship at 1600 GMT on Wednesday. Bringing it to the surface was expected to take at least 20 hours.
The sunken trawler will then be lifted onto a barge which will begin the long, slow haul to the port of Augusta in Sicily, where forensic scientists from across Italy are on hand to begin identifying the bodies packed inside.
"Even before it is taken ashore, accessible parts of the wreck will be examined to recover any bodies in reach," Ibba said.
The wreck will then be placed in a refrigerated tent some 30 metres long, 20 metres wide and 10 metres high, so that work can begin on extracting the bodies. Once empty, the boat will be immediately destroyed.
Fifty bodies were recovered the day of the tragedy, while another 171 have since been brought up from around the wreck, including the two recovered on Wednesday.
Fingerprints, DNA samples and distinguishing body marks will be collected on file from the corpses inside the trawler in the hope the data may helping relatives seeking lost loved ones.
The bodies will then be buried in Sicilian cemeteries.
Since the first large-scale migrant wrecks off Lampedusa island in 2013, Italy has been looking at ways to establish the names of all those who perish while fleeing war, poverty or persecution in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia.
But there are no passenger lists on crossings organised by traffickers, documents are quickly destroyed in water and many people are not reported missing because relatives fear repercussions from oppressive governments.