An explosion of thunder shook the building as Lieutenant Pietro Renzi, dressed in his Navy whites, answered the phone in front of him.
“Mayday. Mayday,” a voice said in heavily accented English. “My latitude is N, three, three, four, nine.”
Renzi snapped his fingers to get his colleagues’ attention. “Three, three degrees?” he asked.
“Four, nine,” replied the caller.
This was exactly the kind of call Renzi and his team were worried about tonight. North African refugee smugglers were subhuman. All they cared about was money. Once they had been paid, they put their passengers into unseaworthy boats, tossed in a compass and a satellite phone preprogrammed with the emergency number of the Guardia Costiera, and pointed them toward Italy.
Rarely did they provide them with enough fuel to make the journey. Rarer still, did they consult weather forecasts. Swells as high as fifteen meters had already been reported tonight, and the storm was only getting worse.
“Thirty-three degrees, forty-nine minutes north,” Renzi repeated, confirming the caller’s position.
“And beneath that? I need the number beneath.”
“Please,” the man implored. “I do not have much battery.”
“Sir, calm down. I need the number beneath.”
The man read the numbers from the screen: “One, three. Dot four, one.”
Renzi entered the full coordinates into his computer: 33°49’N– 13°41’E. The distressed vessel’s position appeared on the giant screen at the front of the operations center. The boat was 120 nautical miles from the island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory.
“Please, please, you must help us,” the caller implored. “There is much water inside the boat. We are sinking.”
“Sir, please. We will send rescue, but you need to be calm. How many people are onboard?”
“One hundred and fifty persons. Many women. Many children. Please hurry. We are in danger. We are sinking.”
An Italian Coast Guard helicopter was out of the question. They were too far away and there were too many people.
Lieutenant Renzi studied the screen at the head of the room. It showed ships and boats in the central Mediterranean Sea. He searched it for one close enough to help effect a rescue.
There was nothing. Seasoned captains had already fled the storm’s path. It would take hours to get any type of vessel to them.
“Hello?” the man said. “Hello? Do you hear me, please?”
“Yes, I still hear you.”
“The waves are very high. All the people are sick. We need your help.”
“Sir,” Lieutenant Renzi repeated, trying to reassure the man, “we are sending a ship to rescue you, but you must stay calm.”
“Now, how many flotation devices do you have?”
“Flotation devices?” the man replied.
“Life jackets,” said Renzi. “How many life jackets do you have?”
There was a pause as the man shouted out a question in his language to the people on his boat. When he came back on the line, his response chilled Renzi to the bone: “We have no life jackets.”
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