ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Even the by the appalling standards of present-day human trafficking in the Mediterranean, the voyage of the Blue Sky M stands out for its scale and its pure strangeness. The cargo ship, some 90 yards from stem to stern and flying the Moldovan flag, sailed from Turkey earlier this month bound for Croatia. Along the way, someone sent out an SOS when it neared the Greek island of Corfu. And today, the vessel was on autopilot, its crew apparently having jumped ship, headed dangerously for the coast of southern Italy.
The Italian Navy boarded the Blue Sky M and brought it to shore in Gallipoli. Its cargo was human; hundreds of people, migrants seeking illicit entry into Europe. Well, joining us from the provincial headquarters of the Italian Red Cross in Lecce, Italy, is spokesperson Mimma Antonacci. And Ms. Antonacci, first, can you tell us how many people were on board this ship and where did they come from?
MIMMA ANTONACCI: Well, the number of the refugees is around between 600 and 900. But actually, I can say there are 60 children, two pregnant women, one woman gave birth on board.
SIEGEL: There were earlier reports that some people on ship had died. Is that true, and what was the - generally the health condition of the people on board?
ANTONACCI: What I can confirm is the general health condition of the refugees - how they arrived at Gallipoli - they arrived in very, very bad condition - hypothermia, frostbite and some fractured legs.What I have seen, it was terrible.
SIEGEL: Ms. Antonacci, where are these people from?
ANTONACCI: These people are mostly from Syria. These people have been received by us and by our local authorities.
ANTONACCI: We are doing our duty, and we are taking care of them.
SIEGEL: How common is it for ships with migrants coming from the Middle East or North Africa to come ashore near Lecce, in southern Italy?
ANTONACCI: We have constantly - constantly - and I repeat constantly - immigration boats arriving in Sicily, in South Italy in Napoli. And the coasts of Salvos are constantly involved in these rescues and receiving people in these conditions. And so our personnel in (speaking foreign language) is well-trained because we are constantly to face this situation.
SIEGEL: Did you hear descriptions from any of these people of what actually happened...
SIEGEL: ...What happened? How it was that the crew abandoned this ship and set it on an automatic course toward the shore?
ANTONACCI: Yeah, what we have been told is that they had been abandoned in open sea and they went away. That's what our translators - or maybe the people told when they arrived. So if our Navy and our Royal Air Force did not train in this manner, we now would talk about several hundred deaths because I can tell you, the coast of Salento is full of cliffs on thia side.
SIEGEL: So you're saying if the Italian sailors and airmen had not gotten onto the ship and taken control of, it...
SIEGEL: ...Would have just slammed into the cliffs and there could've been hundreds...
SIEGEL: ...Of migrants killed in that accident?
ANTONACCI: That's for sure. That's for sure because actually, the ship was with this automatic pilot heading for the coast here in Salento and our navy took over the command of the ship. If they couldn't get this command, we would now talk about the big, big disaster.
SIEGEL: And six sailors actually got on board and...
ANTONACCI: They were brought by the helicopters of the Italian air force. They brought the ship safely home.
SIEGEL: Ms. Antonacci, thank you very much.
ANTONACCI: OK, we'll keep on working.
SIEGEL: That's Mimma Antonacci, spokesperson for the Italian Red Cross. She spoke to us from Lecce, Italy, about the cargo ship that was on autopilot and intercepted by the Italian armed forces today. The ship was carrying hundreds of migrants.
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