Spain mourns worst fishing tragedy in 38 years after sinking of Villa de Pitanxo

Spain was in mourning for its worst fishing tragedy in almost 40 years, as rescuers warned on Wednesday that it was unlikely they would find any more survivors from a ship that sank in rough seas off Newfoundland.

Search teams have so far confirmed 10 dead and rescued three survivors from a life raft, and the search continues for 11 others who remain unaccounted for.

“Once again the people of the sea have been hit very hard,” said Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the president of Spain’s north-western Galicia region, where the boat was based.

“Galicia is a big family and when a family is struck by a tragic event, it unites in grief to seek comfort,” he said, announcing three days of mourning for the victims.

In Madrid, lawmakers observed a minute of silence in parliament for the dead and the missing from the trawler, which went down about 250 nautical miles (463 km) east of Newfoundland, leaving just three confirmed survivors.

Of the 24 crew members, 16 were Spanish, five were Peruvian, and three were Ghanaian.

Luis Planas, Spain’s agriculture and fisheries minister, described the loss of the trawler as “the biggest tragedy in the fishing sector in the last 38 years” – a reference to the sinking of the Islamar III, a sardine boat, off the Canary Islands in July 1984, with the loss of 26 lives.

“This is a job which not only is very hard but is also very dangerous,” he added.

Planas said eight vessels, among them Spanish and Portuguese fishing boats, had joined the search for survivors from the Villa de Pitanxo, after the 50-metre (164-ft) fishing vessel sent out a distress signal at 4.24am GMT on Tuesday.

By Wednesday morning, hopes of finding the 11 missing crew members were fading. “Although we still hope to find survivors alive, it is now unlikely that other survivors will be found,” Nicolas Plourde-Fleury, of Canada’s Department of National Defence in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told AFP, adding that the search continued.

“We are talking about a rescue … in extremely difficult sea conditions, with water temperatures that mean as soon as a person falls in they won’t last long,” said Feijóo.

Writing on Twitter, Spain’s sea rescue service said rescuers were battling very rough seas with “6-7 metre high waves” that were “complicating the search operation and making visibility difficult”.

It was not immediately clear what had caused the boat to founder. Planas said it was operating in a fishing ground “of immense value but which also has very significant climatological problems”.

Among the survivors were the ship’s captain, Juan Padín Costas, and his nephew, Eduardo Rial Padín, whose mother expressed her relief in remarks to Spain’s public television. “I am relieved because he is alive, thank God, but sad because that can’t be said for many of his colleagues,” said Gloria Padín Costas.

So far, there has been no information publicly released about the victims or those still missing at sea.

“Although we may not be able to find survivors, it is very important for the families to collect the bodies,” Javier Touza, the head of the shipowners cooperative in the north-western Spanish city of Vigo, told TV station Antena 3.

Families of the crew were desperately awaiting news about their loved ones. “We just want to know if he is dead or alive,” Carlos Ordóñez told La Voz de Galicia newspaper, referring to his nephew William Arévalo Pérez. “We already know what happens when you fall into waters like those around Newfoundland. Survival is a matter of minutes.”

The survivors were found on a life raft by a Spanish fishing boat five hours after the Villa de Pitanxo sent out a distress call. Suffering from hypothermia, they were airlifted to safety by a Canadian helicopter.

“No one is emotionally prepared to receive such shocking news,” said Feijóo, vowing “to honour those who lost their lives at sea”.

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