Fr Stefano Nastasi describes shock at seeing bodies of the victims on pier

A parish priest on the Italian island of Lampedusa has spoken of his deep sorrow at seeing the bodies of the shipwrecked victims laid out on the pier.

“It is a massacre! A massacre that must be stopped. One cannot bear all this, at such a high cost,” said Fr Stefano Nastasi, parish priest of the Church of San Gerlando of Lampedusa. “I was on the pier. I’ve been there,” he explained, “but then I moved away. Too many dead. Too many.”

Today at 6pm local time a Mass will be celebrated by Fr Nastasi in Lampedusa for the victims of yesterday’s shipwreck carrying around 500 African immigrants, followed by a candlelit procession around the island. Archbishop Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento is expected to attend.

On this national day of mourning in Italy, shops are closed and there is great participation from residents, who dwell near the pier intended to accommodate the bodies extracted from the wreckage. Schools will observe a minute of silence.

Throughout the night, the search for survivors continued and so far 111 bodies have been recovered but tens more are still missing. Of the 500 passengers, mainly from Somalia and Eritrea, 155 have been rescued.

The immigrants were fleeing war and dictatorship in their countries when the overloaded boat in which they were travelling caught fire after a blanket was set alight to attract the coast guard’s attention to their position.

Divers have been searching for the tens of bodies still trapped in the shipwreck about fifty metres below the sea. However, the worsening waves are hindering search and rescue efforts.

The 111 bodies recovered so far, including those of a boy and a girl, aged three and two, have been taken to an airport hangar normally used by the emergency services helicopters.

In Britain, the Apostleship of the Sea has called for prayers and action following the Lampedusa shipwreck.

Apostleship of the Sea national director Martin Foley said: “Our first task is to pray for those who have perished and to remember their families and loved ones.

“Just three months ago, Pope Francis visited the island and called for action to address the causes driving these migrants to make this perilous journey.

“This tragedy must not be compounded by the tragedy of indifference to the complex causes of these repeated sinkings.

“The fact that this tragedy and its causes will soon be out of the news highlights the ‘globalisation of indifference’, something our port chaplains continue to encounter.

“The not insignificant number of cases of abandonment, stowaways, non-payment of wages and other abuses show that indifference and the exploitation of others as a source of income are still present in the maritime world.”