LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Images of migrants risking their lives at sea to cross into Europe has shocked the world. Now an American businessman joined by an international crew of first responders has decided to make a difference. They raised money, got a ship and are now out on patrol trying to save lives. Joanna Kakissis spent time on board talking to the crew about its rescues and heartbreaks.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's just before midnight when the crew of the Responder gets word that a boat nearby is in trouble. It's in Greek territorial waters in the southern Aegean Sea.
EUGENIO MIUCCIO: Sometimes there is a light flash, very small. Oh, no.
KAKISSIS: A doctor and nurse from Italy put on red life jackets ready to jump into a small speedboat. It's piloted by Mimmo Vella, who's from Malta.
MIMMO VELLA: If something happens and people fall in the water, with the big boat we cannot go near them, so we go with the small ones.
KAKISSIS: Iain Brown is a volunteer rescue diver from Scotland. He says most migrant boats are flimsy.
IAIN BROWN: And we can hear them breaking up. They start to sink and they are cracking.
KAKISSIS: But not today, Vella says.
VELLA: We found nothing, so we're going to keep on patrolling. We'll see.
KAKISSIS: The Responder is a search and rescue ship leased by a Malta-based charity called the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS. It was founded by American businessman Chris Catrambone and his Italian wife, Regina. MOAS patrols a stretch of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and the tiny Greek island of Agathonissi. MOAS search and rescue operations officer John Hamilton explains that the water looks deceptively calm to migrants.
JOHN HAMILTON: They could leave from a sheltered bay. They think it's nice weather. Once they get out of this bay, they come across, like, rough seas.
KAKISSIS: The Responder has been backing up the Greek Coast Guard for two months, saving hundreds of lives here. But the crew cannot stop thinking about a boat they found on January 15. It haunts them. This audio comes from a video taken that day by MOAS.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting, unintelligible).
KAKISSIS: A boat had capsized, 23 people aboard, most of them Syrians and Iraqis. They screamed as they clung to the boat's blue and white hull. A diver jumped in to help.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Child, child, baby.
KAKISSIS: Italian Dr. Eugenio Miuccio was aboard the rescue speedboat. He remembers how freezing it was that day.
MIUCCIO: (Speaking Italian).
KAKISSIS: "Children and babies," he says, "can only survive in cold seas for a few minutes." The diver handed him a chubby little boy no more than 2 years old. The boy was blue, foaming at the mouth, with no pulse.
MIUCCIO: (Speaking Italian).
KAKISSIS: "I gave him CPR for 15 minutes," Miuccio says, "but nothing worked." Then he saw two children who were unconscious but had a pulse. Miuccio and the nurse revived them. Back on the deck of the Responder, Mimmo Vella held the little boy who didn't make it.
VELLA: Yeah, I still remember his face. He was like an angel, brown hair on head, the tights under his trousers.
KAKISSIS: Vella has a son the same age. He placed the boy's body on a blanket next to a 4-year-old girl and her 2-year-old brother, who were also found dead. The parents did not know.
VELLA: They were asking how is the kids, how is the kids, and then we have to tell them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Crying, unintelligible).
KAKISSIS: And the mothers fell apart, sobbing as they cradled the bodies of their children. Vella kneeled down next to the mother of the little boy he'd held.
VELLA: I was holding the mother, and I couldn't resist. I cried because she was so much in pain. That pain, it's something you don't want to see it for sure because I believe that the children bury the parents, not the parents bury the children. If it happens to me, I don't know - life doesn't have sense anymore for me.
KAKISSIS: He went to see the surviving children later, and he gave them toys his own kids had sent.
Did you call your kids the next morning?
VELLA: Yes, immediately, yes.
KAKISSIS: What did you say to them?
VELLA: That I love them so much and how lucky they are that they are safe at home.
KAKISSIS: He calls his kids again as the MOAS crew begins another patrol.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Unintelligible).
KAKISSIS: And he hears his son's voice above the wind and the waves. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in the Aegean Sea.
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