U.S. Navy Refused to Help Sinking Migrant Boat That Capsized, Killing Dozens, Survivors Say

The U.S. Navy faces allegations that one of its ships—the USNS Trenton—ignored distress calls from a sinking migrant dinghy that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in June, killing 76 people.

Survivors of the disaster claimed that the Trenton refused to come to their assistance until the packed migrant ship had already sunk, suggesting lives could have been saved had the Navy acted sooner.

Prosecutors on the Italian island of Sicily investigated the allegations, made in a video published by La Republica in October, The Guardian reported.

The U.S. Navy ship rescued 42 people when the dinghy sank, but survivors said the 76 deaths could have been averted. “We saw that ship, it was not far away,’’ one person said. “We saw the American flag. If they had rescued us when we were all still onboard, 76 people would not have died.”

The small boat was traveling from Libya with 117 migrants aboard, many from sub-Saharan Africa. It had been at sea for days when it began taking on water in the early hours of June 12. “The sea was rough and our boat began to fill with water,” one survivor said, “and we suddenly saw a ship; it was an American ship.”

Those aboard tried to get the Trenton’s attention for around an hour, the survivors said, but were unsuccessful. “We saw the American flag, and we tried to reach them, but as we approached, they seemed to avoid us and changed direction,” claimed one.

The Navy denied that the Trenton was close to the migrant boat before it sank.

GettyImages-1029694534 This file photo shows a boat carrying migrants stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar before the Spanish Guardia Civil and the Salvamento Maritimo rescued it on September 8. The U.S. Navy faces allegations that one of its ships—the USNS Trenton—ignored distress calls from a sinking migrant dinghy that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in June, killing 76 people. MARCOS MORENO/AFP/Getty Images

Rescued migrants said the cruiser returned to the scene around half an hour after the dinghy capsized. “We clearly saw the same American ship that had ignored us approaching,’’ one man said. When they asked the sailors why they had not intervened before the dinghy capsized, the survivors claimed the Trenton’s crew said “it was not their job.”

“We will try to talk with the survivors of the shipwreck, to understand what happened that morning,” said prosecutor Fabio D’Anna. He stressed that a formal investigation had not yet been launched.

Commander Kyle Raines, a spokesman for the U.S. 6th Fleet that was responsible for Europe, said the service was “aware of the reports that an Italian official is looking into USNS Trenton’s rescue of people in distress at sea.” Raines said that the vessel’s watch officer first saw the dinghy when it had already capsized and migrants were floating in the ocean.

But a recording made by a Republica reporter indicated that the Trenton had been reticent to help at-risk migrants in a different incident two days before the fatal capsizing. Fabio Butera captured a conversation between the cruiser and Greek merchant ship Leone Hermes in which the U.S. vessel was made aware of a distressed migrant raft.

An American voice replied, “I have other tasking which I’m following… We are unable to assist in this matter.” The migrants were eventually rescued by the Leone Hermes.

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