The doomed dinghy crammed with dozens of migrants was little more than a children’s paddling pool, a French minister said last night.
The tragic group who cast themselves off from the French shoreline had entrusted their lives to a drifting death-trap.
At lunchtime yesterday, their ‘very frail’ craft bobbing empty on a calm stretch of water was the first sign of the horror.
Then French fishermen saw the stomach-churning sight of its passengers floating lifeless nearby. A Mayday call went out immediately.
A Channel uncharacteristically without big waves had tempted more migrants than usual to try the perilous crossing.
French interior minister Gerald Darmanin described the dinghy that capsized yesterday as ‘very frail’. Pictured: Societe Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer boat carrying bodies of migrants
Callous smugglers also whipped up trade by warning of bad weather on its way, playing on the fact the window for crossing was set to close for the next few days.
French interior minister Gerald Darmanin described the dinghy as ‘very frail’ and said it was ‘like a pool you blow up in your garden’. Fatally overloaded, it ran into trouble not long into its journey.
With Calais still agonisingly within sight, its occupants – including at least five women and a girl – were plunged into bitterly cold water.
Terror and panic would have seized the families. Without specialist protective clothing, the shock of icy temperatures would have been enough to see them drown within minutes.
For the French fishermen who discovered the tragedy, it was a ‘desperate’ sight, according to a British skipper who overheard the operation unfolding on his boat’s radio.
Matt Cocker, of Dover, said: ‘The scenes must have been desperate. Awful. Picking bodies out of the water for anyone is the end of things and you don’t want to be doing it.’
Fishermen saw the stomach-churning sight of passengers floating lifeless near. A Mayday call went out immediately. Pictured: Firefighter trucks arriving at Calais harbour on Wednesday
He said his French counterparts alerted their coastguard who raised the alarm ‘at around 1pm, asking for assistance in the rescue of a boat with around 15 on board and more in the water in the north-east shipping lane, seven miles off Calais’.
Mr Cocker said: ‘There were around 15 to 20 big French commercial fishing vessels off Calais at the time, but they didn’t respond. There seemed to be little by way of a rescue operation from the French.’
Vessels from HM Coastguard at Dover, along with the Border Force’s ship BF Hurricane, responded to the Mayday and arrived within around 45 minutes.
Three helicopters – from the UK, France and Belgium – were sent to help the search.
The interior minister said 34 had been aboard the dinghy, but Franck Dhersin, a mayor near Dunkirk, earlier claimed that more than 50 migrants had been on the vessel when it capsized.
At least one passenger was still missing last night, but hopes had all but faded of finding them alive.
Two people were plucked from the water still conscious and were being treated for hypothermia. The remaining 31 perished before rescuers could reach them.
Mr Cocker said it was likely the migrants’ dinghy had been a ‘cheap and flimsy’ one which simply gave way.
He added the sea was ‘absolutely flat, with probably about 30 migrant boats taking advantage of the best weather for days to cross. But the traffickers put them in cheap plastic inflatables. They’re not proper boats. They overload them and they split and deflate and the people end up in the water. They often don’t have life jackets. They don’t stand a chance.’
He added: ‘They often don’t even have proper motors. The traffickers are charging £3,000 to £5,000 each [person] with 20 on board so they are really maximising their profits.’
Last night in the darkness a grim parade of boats made its way into the port of Calais carrying the corpses.
As French president Emmanuel Macron (pictured) looked sombre after receiving the news, politicians and officials expressed their shock and fury at an ‘accident waiting to happen’
Around 20 emergency service vehicles lined the Paul-Devot quayside and a special motorised hoist was brought to the site.
Human rights protesters held a silent vigil on the dockside, with one woman carrying a sign that read in French: ‘How many more deaths do you need, Calais?’
As French president Emmanuel Macron looked sombre after receiving the news, politicians and officials expressed their shock and fury at an ‘accident waiting to happen’.
French MP Pierre-Henri Dumont declared: ‘The Channel right now is becoming the new Mediterranean Sea – it’s like an open sky graveyard.’
The head of Calais port, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, told UK reporters: ‘Even if the sea is not looking so rough, in the middle of the Channel there are always many waves.
‘It is dangerous. We must all try to find a solution because there will be more – they try everything to get to your country.
‘That’s why I am very upset. I don’t know what to do.’
He added: ‘If there are 50 people in the boat and some water gets into the boat then they will not be able to get rid of the water because the boat is so crowded.
‘Then there is more and more water and then this happens. The sea is very, very cold – there is little chance of survival.’
In a press conference on the quayside, Mr Darmanin said: ‘Today is an appalling situation for France, Europe and humanity to see these people perish at sea.’
He blamed the Berlin government for failing to stop people smugglers buying dinghies in Germany and bringing them to the north of France.
He said four people had been arrested so far over the tragedy.
Mr Darmanin told reporters that ‘1,500 people have been arrested since the start of January, and four of them today – we suspect that they were directly linked to this particular crossing’.