Horrific scenes of hundreds of migrants trying to survive the capsizing of their boat were recalled yesterday with the arrival of the LE Niamh into Palermo port.
Up to 200 people may have drowned and 399 were saved after an overcrowded boat capsized and sank in the Mediterranean on Wednesday.
According to an eyewitness: "The sea was filled with the dead and the drowning. Men, women and children."
Irish naval vessel LE Niamh had already deployed boats to begin a routine transferring of passengers when the boat suddenly overturned.
"Within a matter of 30 seconds the vessel had gone down," said Commander Ken Minihane, the most senior officer on board the LE Niamh.
"The scene was initially quite chaotic. There was a lot of people in the water," he told RTE News. "But the crew of the LE Niamh dealt with the situation extremely well," he said.
Irish naval personnel undertook an emergency operation to save as many of the men, women and children as possible. Lt Commander Daniel Wall deployed all available boats on board to assist in the mass rescue effort.
The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres had a number of boats that assisted in the rescue efforts, but many of the migrants were unable to swim.
A large proportion were believed to be refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. The overcrowded wooden boat had set out from Zuwarah in Libya, close to the Tunisian border.
"It was very upsetting yesterday to see a mother and father grieving for a very young child. Our personnel tried to resuscitate them, but unfortunately there was nothing they could do," said Commander Minihane.
A Palestinian family spoke of how they shared one lifejacket to survive. When the boat capsized, the father gave the lifejacket to his wife, who could not swim. He then dived underwater and saved their one-year-old daughter.
An Irish naval seaman saved a child and then handed the child to the grateful parents. But the child lapsed into unconsciousness and he performed CPR until the child revived.
The exhausted survivors were being cared for last night by the Red Cross and other agencies.