CNN witnesses dramatic migrant rescue in Mediterranean
05:15 - Source: CNN
Lampedusa, Italy CNN  — 

The Italian Navy approached the rickety wooden ship with caution, and a wide berth.

Go in too quickly, and the people onboard become so excited about their impending rescue that they capsize by all moving to one side. This is how so many of the drowning disasters have happened.

As European leaders decide on measures to tackle the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, the race to save lives on the high seas goes on, as our CNN team witnessed firsthand.

We started our day on a helicopter bound for the frigate Virginio Fasan, one of the Italian Navy’s most modern warships, currently in international waters facing the Libyan coast. Along with four other Italian naval vessels they patrol an area of sea about the size of the United Kingdom; some 80,000 square miles. It’s a huge effort for the 1,000 men and women continuously at sea, because each rescue takes several hours.

Barely 30 minutes into our chopper flight journey the pilot tells us they have spotted a boat, possibly full of migrants. And onboard screens beaming imagery of a wooden vessel packed to the gills confirms their suspicions. The blue boat is on course for Lampedusa, they’ve completed almost half the journey from Libya 85 miles from where we are… now in international waters the smugglers use their cell phones to call the Italian coast guard for help! That’s their MO.

The warship Sfinge (Sphinx) is closest, and is promptly dispatched to rescue those onboard. Crew on smaller boats hand out the distinctive orange life vests as soon as they arrive.

To get closer and at sea level—we fly back to the Fasan and get into the ship’s speed boat, and watch as navy teams move people to the warship in small groups. All personnel involved in the operation are dressed head to toe in white biohazard suits, face masks and gloves, in case of infectious disease. We’re told that in all the crossings not a single case of Ebola has been brought over.

The boat has been checked for hostile intent, and once the navy is satisfied they are all migrants, they begin the slow process of off-loading these people and transferring them by their two small boats to the warship. One by one they bring each person up the stairs—give them a medical, hand out bottles of water, and sit them in rows on the top deck, under the broiling sun. Men are separated from the women and children.

One person died, suffocated during the overcrowded boat ride from Libya. Three people had to be medevaced off—but in all this mission saved 289 lives. They are among 900 who were saved on Wednesday in three different wooden boats, because it was sunny and calm.

Most of the migrants saved on this day are from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea in East Africa, escaping a dictatorial regime and military service that they say amounts to slavery.

Almost nobody on board speaks English, but one man tells us his story, saying he left his wife and children over a year ago, and hopes his arrival in Europe will mean he can afford a better life for them back home.

And even though he knows a lot of people have died trying to make this dangerous crossing, he tells he was not afraid. “We have one chance, to live or to die,” he says.

We also talk to 25-year-old Juri, who tells us that God answered their prayers in the form of the Italian Navy. “God is good,” she says with a big smile on her face, “they save our lives.”

UPDATE: On Friday, UNHCR reported that 180 of those rescued had been transferred to four facilities in eastern Sicily. The rest, they say, are still at the port and will be transferred soon.

The one fatality was a 17-year-old Eritrean man, who reportedly died of asphyxiation in the hull of the boat.

CNN’s Mick Krever contributed to this report.