ROME — The men and women of EgyptAir Flight 804 did not die alone.
The 66 people who went down in the Mediterranean Sea on early Thursday joined the nearly 1,500 migrants who have died in the same waters so far this year, and the nearly 4,000 who lost their lives in 2015. In fact, when news first broke that the jet went down, there were already plenty of search and rescue forces patrolling the waters.
Within a few hours, Greek, Italian, French, and American military commanders had all repurposed assets allocated for Mediterranean surveillance for migrants in distress to aid in the search of the downed airplane. The French sent a Falcon surveillance jet and the United States deployed a P-3 Orion from nearby Sigonella Air Base in Sicily to initially scout for survivors and later for wreckage. The Greeks sent a frigate, two aircraft, and two helicopters that were on standby for migrant rescue operations. The United Kingdom also moved assets in the area to assist.
Even Frontex, Europe’s border control agency that is running a multi-vessel mission to spot migrants and refugees trying to enter Europe, was roped in.
“One of our patrol vessels originally spotted wreckage they thought belonged to the downed aircraft, but it was actually from an abandoned migrant ship,” a Frontex spokesman working on a Finnish vessel patrolling for migrants told The Daily Beast.
Greek rescue vessels also found ample debris, including life vests and some plastic pieces in their initial searches, but none of it was from the EgyptAir disaster. Athanassios Binis, head of Greece’s Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board, told Greek state television ERT that “an assessment of the finds showed that they do not belong to an aircraft.”
In fact, it was from smugglers’ ships.
When migrants and refugees are rescued at sea, the old smugglers’ ships and fishing boats are either left to drift or destroyed and sunk, meaning floating debris in the Mediterranean is all too common. So are dead bodies.
The first ships to answer the original distress call were merchant cargo vessels that are accustomed to coming to the aid of migrants in distress. In 2015, more than half of all migrant rescues were responded to by merchant vessels, which are obligated by law to go to the scene of any SOS call. Many now carry life-saving equipment including vests, ladders, and extra dinghies to help save lives.
Not all of the merchant ships want to cooperate. Migrant Report found that increasingly, merchant vessels turn off their Automatic Identification System or (AIS) tracker that tells military commanders who is where, in order to not have to answer rescue calls, which often lead to delays and even lengthy legal cases if lives are lost. “Switching off the AIS is becoming a global problem now,” Glen Forbes, former British Royal Naval Officer and head of the maritime focused news website Oceanus Live, said.
If that were the case in the Air Egypt disaster, it could mean that there were many more ships in the area when the plane disappeared. As it was, the maritime ship tracking website Marine Traffic tweeted a map showing at least eight merchant ships answering the call to action.
Once what’s left of the wreckage has been found at the bottom of the sea, the rescue and recovery vessels in the Mediterranean should be able to use their assets to help raise it much more quickly than any recent air to sea disaster. The Italian Navy is already out there raising a migrant vessel with as many as 700 people that sank in 2015.
A source working on that project told The Daily Beast that it was entirely feasible that once the migrant ship is raised and delivered to Sicily, they could assist in the eventual recovery of what’s left with the EgyptAir fuselage if asked.
Since an accord between the European Union and Turkey virtually stopped the migrant flow to Greece, those seeking shelter in Europe have been increasingly testing the waters between Egypt and Italy—precisely where the EgyptAir jet went down. Multiple boats filled with more than 1,000 migrants rescued last weekend had set off from Egyptian ports, according to the Italian navy that rescued them, meaning it is entirely possible that migrants and refugees could have been witness to the plane going down.