The veteran Italian seaman has just spent two testing days at the helm with more than 1,000 distressed African migrants crowded onto the tug boat he skippers in his role as head of security for a major oil platform in waters off troubled Libya.
“I've been a captain around here for 30 years, I've seen migrants go by… But this, this was a first” the 60-year-old told AFP in a phone interview from the southern Italian island of Sicily.
The Vos Thalassa, his 60-metre (200 foot) vessel, usually spends its time patrolling an oil field about 70 nautical miles off Libya.
On Friday afternoon he spotted a vessel carrying about 40 migrants, who were waving a white flag signalling distress, and when he contacted the Italian Coastguard, they asked him to intervene.
The coastguard said two patrol boats would soon arrive from the island of Lampedusa to recover the migrants.
File photo of migrants at the port of Lampedusa. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
Instead, those boats rescued other migrants at risk of drowning, and brought them to Cuzzolino's boat before heading off for other rescue operations.
“At half past midnight I had 1,042 people aboard, including about 50 women, 15 children and seven bodies that were already in sealed bags when they brought them to me,” he said.
He does not know how they died, but many of the migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean for Europe succumb to hypothermia or dehydration, choke on engine fumes, or are smothered on overcrowded vessels.
Some 3,400 migrants were rescued in the waters off Libya last Friday alone, bringing the total for last week to more than 10,000 people.
Boats filling up fast
Without food or water, the migrants packed on the Vos Thalassa's broad flat deck were on edge, and many became threatening and at times aggressive toward the 14 crew members.
“We barricaded ourselves inside,” the captain said, letting only women and children enter to use the toilets.
An Italian coastguard ship, itself loaded with migrants, was able to drop off food and water on Saturday.
File photo of an Italian coastguard ship arriving at Lampedusa. Photo: Maura Seminara/AFP
But Italy's Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre had no more boats available, so the Vos Thalassa had no choice but to head for Sicily itself.
Global leaders, however, were still gathered on the east coast of the island for their G7 summit at Taormina. So Cuzzolino was told to chart a course to Palermo, in the northwest of the island, where he was finally able to unload his passengers on Sunday afternoon.
It was 3:00 am by the time all the migrants were brought off the boat, and the captain and his crew then spent several hours cleaning up.
Italian media reported that police arrested a 39-year-old Moroccan wanted on suspicion of drug trafficking and a 22-year-old Nigerian accused by many on the ship of being a people trafficker.
Many of those onboard said they had crossed the Sahara in the back of refrigerated freight trucks before spending months at camps in Libya, often subjected to violent abuse by their handlers, according to the reports.
“Save lives at sea, bring 150 people to safety, feed and take care of them while waiting for someone to come and get them, this we can do,” Cuzzolino said.
“But become a storage vessel for 48 hours, that's putting everyone's lives in danger: the boat, the crew and the migrants,” he said.
With milder weather coming, though, encouraging even more migrants to attempt the perilous crossing, the captain knows that when the coastguard, military and NGO boats are full, the authorities will be calling again.
By Fanny Carrier
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