The sinking of the F174, a Maltese-berthed former RAF patrol boat, was at the time the worst disaster to have taken place in the Mediterranean since World War II.
On Christmas night 1996, the vessel was secretly embarking irregular migrants to carry them to shore on Sicily when it collided with the traffickers’ ‘mother ship’, the Honduras-registered Yiohan in circumstances that remain disputed to this day.
At least 283 men, women and children were killed. But the boat plunged to the bottom without leaving wreckage or bodies for rescuers to find. The only evidence for what had happened was in the accounts of the survivors, most of whom had been aboard the Yiohan waiting to be transshipped, when the collision took place. The survivors were taken to Greece, which is where their story began to emerge almost two weeks later.
After talking to rescuers and police, I became convinced that the survivors’ accounts were broadly accurate. The Observer was initially cautious, publishing the story in its first edition on January 5, 1997, on an inside page in the ‘news in brief’ section. But as the evening wore on and the evidence became increasingly compelling, the story was promoted to the front page. Over the weeks that followed, I and other Observer reporters and correspondents amassed a wealth of evidence to show the disaster had taken place and that hundreds of lives had been lost. Yet even after I located the Yiohan — the ‘Ship of Death’ itself — on March 1, 1997, and stole aboard the vessel to find heart-rending evidence of the migrants’ plight, none of the mainstream media in Italy or elsewhere took up the story.
It was not until 2001, in fact, that a reporter for the Italian daily La Repubblica became interested in what had happened after he was contacted by a fisherman who had netted some clothing and the ID card of a young Tamil. The reporter, Giovanni Maria Bellu, got together the funding to send an ROV—a remotely operated underwater vehicle—down to the seabed, where it filmed the wreck and the skeletons of the victims. Yet when a team from the Discovery Channel returned to the spot, they could find no trace of the F174. Like so many migrants in the Mediterranean, it had disappeared from sight. How and why has never been established.