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Couple Rescues Migrants Trying To Reach Europe On Overpacked Boats


In the past month, over 1,200 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in tiny, over-packed boats. They're among hundreds of thousands of migrants expected to try and reach Europe by sea, fleeing poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East. We were able to catch up with someone at the center of this crisis.

CHRISTOPHER CATRAMBONE: We're just currently leaving Pozzallo. We just disembarked 369 people. So as we speak, we're literally pulling up the lines, so (laughter).

GREENE: Wow, you're pulling up the lines. This is as you leave a port in Sicily, right?

CATRAMBONE: Yeah, we just disembarked all our passengers that we rescued on May 3. Yeah, we're headed back out.

GREENE: That's Christopher Catrambone. He's American. His wife, Regina, is Italian. This year, the couple spent $8 million buying and refitting a 136-foot ship, the Phoenix. They're using it to rescue migrants who are seeking a better life. When we reached Christopher Catrambone by satellite phone on the bridge of the Phoenix, the ship and its crew were setting out for another rescue mission. We asked him to describe the mission they had just completed.

CATRAMBONE: We just had left out of Malta on May 2 in the afternoon. And by the morning time, we had received a call from the rescue coordination center in Rome for a boat in distress. We immediately launched our drones and located the vessel within 15 minutes using the infrared camera onboard the drone.

GREENE: You have drones that are actually on your ship?

CATRAMBONE: Yes, we have two Schiebel S-100 Campcopter drones. They basically give us a 60 nautical mile radius around the boat. And they're very, very beneficial for spotting vessels using their infrared cameras because it's just such a vast sea out there, and it's difficult to locate these by boats. And so if you've got some air assets, it really provides an advantage.

GREENE: And so you used these drones, and you were able to find this ship that was in distress. Tell me what happened next.

CATRAMBONE: Yeah, basically we were able to identify it. It was a wooden boat of about 15 meters. And when we first spotted it with the drones, you could just see how packed it was with people on it. As soon as we were able to locate it, the Phoenix made its way to the boat and began distributing lifejackets to all 369 people on board. None of them had lifejackets. They were all without. After we were able to distribute the lifejackets, we began embarking all the women and children first and all the men as well. And everybody on board was from Eritrea, and they were all Christian as well. The number of pregnant women was about eight. And we had various types of injuries that were treated by the Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors on board Phoenix. We had some diabetes and had about 30 percent of the people with scabies. So it was quite an intense time with them because once we completed work, then we got another call asking us to locate a rubber boat with over a hundred people on it. And we did locate that boat, and we assisted them to be transferred onto a commercial vessel. It was quite a dramatic rescue because it was happening at night, and it's very difficult to do a rescue at night. And, of course, people get tired. They had been at sea for a long time. And it's just really treacherous conditions. So it's - it's been quite an intense period since we set sail out of Malta's Grand Harbour.

GREENE: Yeah, it really sounds that way. And I guess I just want to hear more about this. You're saying that these are Eritrean Christians. This is from the African nation of Eritrea. I wonder if you had the chance to talk to some of these people, and I wonder what they told you.

CATRAMBONE: Yeah, I mean, we had talked to a lot of the people on board. They told us their stories about how they were abused and tortured in Libya. They told us stories from Eritrea, how they were escaping their government and, you know, terrible things. I mean, these people have no freedom. They have nothing.

GREENE: Does one story, one passenger, stand out that you can tell us about?

CATRAMBONE: We had a little boy on board who was 13 years old. He was Eritrean. He was all alone. His mother and father were back in Eritrea. And he was a very bright little boy. He really didn't know, I guess, the true dynamics of his plight. He just knew that he was on a journey and that he was going off and trying to get to Europe to find a better life. It just was amazing because you look at a 13-year-old kid in Europe or America and you compare this kid - has really lived an adult's life already. And it's just heartbreaking. It's sad, but it also is, you know, the will of people, of human beings, that want to move ahead. And I think that that's really what struck me with him. And he was just an amazing little boy.

GREENE: Did he tell you how he got on this journey? I mean, did his parents send him away hoping that he would reach Europe?

CATRAMBONE: Yes. They sent - they knowingly let him go. They just had given up on giving him an opportunity in life. And it sounded to me like his parents were in full compliance with what he was doing, which I think is amazing in itself too. So they're desperate. They're forced into the military. Their religions are banned. And to be honest with you, if I was in their shoes, I'd be doing the same thing.

GREENE: This boy is one of the 369 migrants who you dropped off in Sicily just a short while ago.

CATRAMBONE: In Pozzallo, yeah.

GREENE: What's next for him?

CATRAMBONE: He's going to be processed, and he's going to be looked after by the Italian authorities. And hopefully he's going to be cared for and given care to what a 13-year-old kid needs. And the Italians are very good at that. They're very good at recognizing unaccompanied minors. Of course, we've told the Italian authorities about him as well. And I hope that he makes it. I hope that he is able to live out his parents' dream and his dream of living a better life.

GREENE: So tell me what you're seeing right now. You're on board the ship, and what's around you?

CATRAMBONE: Well, we're actually just leaving the port city of Pozzallo. So we're still in the port, and we're actually maneuvering right now. And I'm just passing a huge tanker ship right now that's docked on the side of the jetty. And we'll shortly be pulling out into the sea and then headed back to about 50 nautical miles from the coast of Libya. And we'll be there probably in the next 24 hours. We speed at a maximum of 10 knots. So it's quite a slow boat considering, but she's a very heavy boat. And she's a very safe boat.

GREENE: Well, Christopher Catrambone, I know you're maneuvering out of port right now. We'll let you get back to work. Thanks so much for getting on the line with us. We appreciate it.

CATRAMBONE: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Christopher Catrambone, speaking to us from the bridge of his ship as it leaves a port in Sicily and heads back out into the Mediterranean. He and his wife founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a nonprofit organization that rescues migrants who are trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.