Monday, July 16, 10:35 p.m.
SOMEWHERE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA -- Where are they?
As dusk turns to dark and the stars begin to show and a bad moon rises in the mid-July sky, where are the immigrants sighted earlier in the day in a rubber raft puttering due north?
This is the question Marc Gasol asks as he stares at a sea more than 3.5 times the size of Texas. He has come to these waters and to this search-and-rescue ship in the middle of the Mediterranean to see for himself, to help if he can, to understand. He's thinking about the people on that raft, thinking how terrified they must be, how hungry and thirsty they are, how utterly desperate they must be.
Their last known position was about 80 miles off the Libyan coast. These days, that is a very bad place to be -- hundreds of miles of open sea before them, the Libyan Coast Guard behind. Already this year, according to the United Nations Migration Agency, more than 1,500 immigrants -- and 600 in June alone -- have died or gone missing while trying to cross these achingly beautiful blue waters to the shores of Europe.
As the skies darken, the blue is replaced by black, the water temperature drops, and a rubber raft bobs somewhere in the sea. Nobody knows how many immigrants are on the raft or whether they're alive or if the Libyans already have found them. All anyone knows for sure is that they have a 1-in-31 chance of survival, according to the UN June/July figures.
About 115 miles away is a converted tugboat named Open Arms, and not far behind it is the slower, 48-year-old retrofitted yacht named the Astral. They are humanitarian rescue ships, sanctioned by no government, unwelcome in a growing number of European countries and ports, operated by a mixture of volunteers and search-and-rescue lifers. They are making their way south, guided by their radar, GPS and the radio chatter from ships aware of the raft sighting.
At the wheel of the Astral is captain Riccardo Gatti. The only other person on the bridge is Gasol, the Memphis Grizzlies center whose $24.1 million salary makes him the wealthiest -- and tallest -- volunteer deckhand in the history of the immigrant rescue boat. "I'm going to try to lay down,'' he says, "but I don't think sleeping tonight is a real option."
A day earlier, Sunday, July 15, 9:31 p.m.
BARCELONA -- One by one, they approach him for a quick photo: There's a family of four and two girlfriends on holiday and airline gate attendants. Gasol, who was born in this Spanish seaside city and lives here during the NBA offseason, is waiting to board a flight to Malta, a speck of an island in the Mediterranean.
He is almost completely surrounded by 10 women who have emerged from the nearby jet bridge of an arriving flight. This three-time NBA All-Star, former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Olympian, FIBA World Cup champion, husband, father of two young children and global philanthropist smiles like someone who has been stopped many times at many airports for a photo op.
He has invited us -- former University of Arizona quarterback-turned-producer Jason Johnson and me -- to chronicle Mission No. 47 of Proactiva Open Arms, the NGO (nongovernmental organization) that conducts monthly search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Also on the flight is Proactiva Open Arms founder and president Oscar Camps, who approved the invitation.
"I am the bait -- the hook,'' Gasol says of his role in the story.
Gasol has followed the work of Proactiva Open Arms "from a distance'' for a little more than a year. He was moved by the desperation of the immigrants and by the efforts of NGOs such as the nonprofit Proactiva to rescue them. When Camps asked him to join a mission, he didn't hesitate.
"It's something that I truly believe in and something that I really feel,'' says Gasol, who didn't ask the Grizzlies for their blessing to take the trip, nor did he provide the team details of what it entailed. "Probably won't be the same guy after the mission. And I'm aware of that, and I'm OK with that.''
There are those close to Gasol who asked if this trip was really a good idea. Even his wife, Cristina, had her concerns before offering full support. But to Gasol, there were no second thoughts.
"If you want to be able to tell a story to other people and to bring more awareness to the issue, you have to go through it,'' he says. "I am nervous. ... I'm anxious because the not knowing.''
"The worst being?'' I ask.
"Death,'' Gasol says. "The worst being little children floating in the water.''
Monday, July 16, 12:30 a.m.
VALLETTA, Malta -- Our flight lands in the smallest capital city in the European Union. We gather our bags, and 45 minutes later, the five of us -- Camps, Gasol, Proactiva coordinator Marta Sarralde, Johnson and I -- are sitting at a sidewalk pizza café near the city center.
Camps, 63, pulls out his cell phone, pokes a finger at his photos icon and scrolls to pictures of a recent audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican. During a July 6 "Holy Mass for the Migrants'' at Saint Peter's Basilica, the Pope closed his homily by switching to Spanish and speaking directly to the assembled rescuers, including Camps and his Proactiva crew members, as well as immigrants who had been rescued from the Mediterranean. He compared the rescuers to the Good Samaritan, who saved the life of a stranger.
Gasol looks hard at the photos and at that life vest. He has a 4-year-old daughter and a 16-month-old son, and he's trying to comprehend a scenario that would cause a parent to put a child in a raft, in harm's way.
"I would have to be really, really desperate,'' he says. "If [there's] no other way ... you'd probably go through the same thought process as these [parents].''
Monday, July 16, 12:20 p.m.
"Basically, they hate us,'' Sarralde says. "They call us smugglers.''
"They'' are those in Malta and Italy, as well other EU nations, who partly blame NGOs such as Proactiva for the influx of immigrants. According to the UN Migration Agency, there have been 77,483 immigrant arrivals (63,142 by sea, 14,341 by land) in 2018 via the dozens of known transit routes from Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Italy, Greece and Spain are the most frequent landing spots.
In the past, the Proactiva ships were allowed to dock in the harbor of Valletta. But no longer. Malta, with rare exception, has shut its borders to immigrants and its docks to the NGO ships that rescue them. It has followed the lead of Italy and the hardline anti-immigration stance of Matteo Salvini, the country's deputy prime minister and interior minister.
"... Extremely contentious at all different levels,'' says Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. "When you look at the political space, it's become a huge point of conflict in a number of different governments at the national level.''
The hardliners accuse the nine NGOs that have a history of operating in the Mediterranean of being nothing more than "taxis'' for immigrants. Those critics have, at times, accused the NGOs of colluding and profiting from alleged relationships with human traffickers. Camps says the accusations are false.
As another way to reduce the flow of immigrants into its country, Italy has provided ships, equipment and financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard to act as a first line of border defense. According to the UN Migration Agency, more than 10,000 immigrants have been returned to Libya by the coast guard this year. Thousands of the migrants are placed in overcrowded detention centers.
"The detention camps are horrific," says Matthew Reynolds, a regional representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. "They are almost concentration camps, in some cases.''
These tactics and border closings have contributed to a dramatic decrease in the number of immigrants reaching Europe in recent years. There were 390,432 immigrant arrivals to Europe in 2016 and less than half that many (186,768) in 2017, according to UN Migration Agency figures. The latest immigrant arrival numbers suggest another decrease in 2018.
"There are fewer people crossing than in the past, but it has become much more dangerous,'' Reynolds said. "As people have become more desperate, and coast guards and so on have clamped down more, people are taking more desperate routes. ... There is the danger of the high seas, of getting on a very rickety, rickety boat -- I'm not sure even some of them would be considered boats.''
Adds Fratzke: "They're aware of the fact that ... they might die trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, but they don't think it could possibly be any worse than what they're leaving behind.''
Europe remains divided on how best to deal with the 1.8 million immigrants who have arrived by sea since 2014. There is no consensus within the European Union relative to immigration policy, and according to the New York Times, EU polling indicates that immigration remains a hot-button issue.
Shortly after noon, our party is taken to the 65-foot charter boat, where we wait as Camps negotiates fuel costs with the owner over the phone. Camps and Sarralde have told the owner that the day cruise will take us 40 miles out to sea, into international waters. This part is true. What we don't find out until later is that Camps has told the owner that he and Gasol are there to assist an American television reporter and producer in the "research and observation of Mediterranean marine life.''
Without the cover story, Camps explains later, the boat owner was unlikely to approve the charter for those affiliated with an NGO. This is the level of divide between the pro- and anti-immigrant factions.
We finally make our way out of the harbor, then north, then west past the archipelago of Gozo. Camps nods toward Malta as it slips below the horizon and out of sight. "The rock in the sea,'' he says. It will be the last land we see for five days.
Camps gives us a shorthand version of his résumé: owner of a handful of businesses in Spain, he started Proactiva with about $170,000 of his own money in late 2015. His two rescue ships were donated or loaned for use, and a global fundraising campaign has helped finance the operating costs of missions, which cost about $8,000 per day, Camps says.
At 3:10 p.m., the charter boat comes to a stop. We have reached the 40-mile marker and the limit of the gas purchase. Camps pulls out a pair of binoculars and scans the water. Gasol sits near the stern and does the same.
As we bob in the water, I go talk to the captain, who is conflicted.
"If in Malta or Italy you say you want to help NGO, they throw rocks at you,'' he says.
The captain, who is Italian, is sympathetic to the NGO cause. He says he understands the backlash against the arrival of so many immigrants. He acknowledges the argument that such immigration should be "proportional'' to the size of the admitting country.
"But Italy is a country of 60 million,'' he says. "Are 600,000 [immigrants] so much?''
About 90 minutes later, there is a radio burst. Someone announces that they are on the way.
We are told to gather our things. This, says Camps, is a rendezvous point. The Astral is 5 miles away, and a rubber speedboat has been dispatched to take us to the yacht.
Gasol grabs his bag and waits near the stern as the speedboat comes into view. His face is serious.
"So now we begin,'' he says.
Monday, July 16, 5:11 p.m.
ABOARD THE ASTRAL -- The 98-foot yacht is German-built and was christened in 1970. It was rebuilt in 1990 in Fort Lauderdale and again in 2009 in Barcelona.
The crew is multinational: Captain Gatti is a two-year veteran of Proactiva sea-and-rescue missions. The chief engineer, Savvas Kouperinis, is Greek and a former member of that country's Special Forces. The first mate, Juan Rodriguez de la Fuente, is Spanish and has been on multiple Proactiva missions. The cook, Lorenzo Leonetti, is Italian, and he has a large spoon tattoo on his right arm and a large fork tattoo on his left arm. This is his second mission.
The Astral has been retrofitted for rescue work but not for an NBA center. As he is led below deck, Gasol has to bend his head and neck sideways to keep from hitting the ceiling. His cabin is located down another small flight of steps, past a small dining table, the claustrophobic-sized galley and a large garbage can.
Gasol shoehorns himself into the room and unpacks his small, white duffel bag without complaint. On the road in the NBA, he stays at five-star hotels. But here at sea, he stays in a room the size of a kitchen pantry.
"How is it?'' I say, staring at his tiny bunk, wondering how far his size 17s will stretch over the end of the bed.
"Good,'' he says. "This will be fine.''
We are headed south on a course that will take us toward the Libyan coast, a little east of Tripoli but well outside the country's territorial waters. At about 10 knots per hour, the two 290-horsepower diesel engines hardly break a sweat in the relatively calm seas.
The crews of both the Astral and Open Arms have been monitoring radio chatter since late afternoon, and it indicates that a merchant ship has sighted an immigrant raft making its way north from Libya.
Gasol has taken a seat on a padded bench that curves around part of the steering area. It is 6:40 p.m. Dolphins swim alongside the Astral.
"Right now, I'd be giving the kids a bath, getting ready for dinner,'' he says. "That's how Monday nights go at the Gasol house.''
Eleven minutes later, the radio delivers unwanted news: The Libyan Coast Guard apparently has told the merchant ship that it will handle the search and rescue of the immigrant raft by itself. According to Camps, the coast guard will almost certainly return the immigrants to Libya.
The raft is approximately 80 miles from the shore, meaning the immigrants have spent nearly two days at sea. In most cases, Proactiva rescuers say, the chances of survival drop to nearly zero after one day in the water. By that point, the immigrants are usually out of food and fresh water. A working compass is all they have left.
"This is the sea,'' Camps says. "These boats are rubber, or worse, and they disappear into the shadows.''
Open Arms, which is several hours ahead of the Astral, will reach the last known raft coordinates by 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. Even then, Gatti says, "it will not be very easy to find them.''
Across from the steering column is an area for maps, binoculars, an ashtray, life vests and helmets. Under a protective plastic cover is a sheet of notebook paper filled with handwritten sayings: "The future belongs to the risk-takers, not the comfort seekers.'' "Let not what you cannot do tear you from what you can do.''
There is a lone baby shoe hanging from a pole leading down to the common area.
"Your kid?'' I ask Gatti.
No, he says. It came from a child, no older than 1 year old, who was pulled from the sea naked during a rescue. Rodriguez de la Fuente revived the child, who had quit breathing. The shoe, Gatti says, is a happy memento.
Tuesday, July 17, 5:59 a.m.
Gatti stares at the radar screen. An icon marks Open Arms' position off the port side but nothing else.
"No boat,'' he says of the search for the immigrants' raft. "Difficult.''
Before sunrise, Open Arms began a zig-zag course in search of the raft. The Astral, with its rubber speedboat tied loosely to the bow, splits the middle of the 8-mile-wide search pattern.
Gasol, who spent almost the entire night on the bridge, returns with a cup of coffee in his hand. He offers a quick "good morning,'' then turns his attention to the radar screen and the radio chatter. Several of the crew members are scouring the waters with their binoculars. According to the radar, we have just passed the last known raft coordinates from a day earlier. The crew fears the worst.
Then at 7:11, a radio dispatch in Spanish comes from Open Arms, which is now about 5 miles ahead. Gatti translates for us: Their crew has seen something.
At 7:21, another radio burst: Open Arms has spotted what's left of the raft. There appear to be two or three bodies in the water, but nothing else. Kouperinis' face contorts in anguish at the news. Gasol drops his head.
"It looks like the Libyans took the migrants and left the two bodies,'' Gatti says, as he returns the radio microphone to its hook.
Another radio dispatch, again in Spanish: "One alive!''
There is no need for translation. Kouperinis quickly puts on a helmet and life vest and makes his way toward the stern of the Astral, where the speedboat is tied by rope. By 7:50, he has pulled the rubber craft alongside the yacht. Gasol and a small rescue party, also in red helmets and life vests, jump into the boat. Open Arms has lowered its own speedboat into the water. Speedboats are used because the wake of either ship would destroy whatever is left of the wreckage.
It takes less than seven minutes to reach what's left of the raft. Floating face-down and lifeless on a small plank of wood is a woman whose skin has begun to peel from her arms. Next to her is the body of a young boy. His clothes are gone.
A few feet away is another woman, her arm draped over the corner of a small plank of wood. Her eyes are closed, but they slowly open as several rescue swimmers jump into the gasoline-coated waters and move toward her.
One of the swimmers takes the boy and rushes him to the Open Arms speedboat. But as soon as they lift the boy from the water, his legs and arms as limp as the branches of a willow tree, they know he is gone. The worker lays him gently on the floor of the rubber craft, soon to be joined by the body of the other woman. The crew will keep the bodies secure and protected from the elements until they reach port.
Meanwhile, the surviving woman is moved toward Gasol's boat. A life belt is positioned under her arms, and she is slowly pulled from the water and settles almost at Gasol's feet. Kouperinis cradles her in his arms. She reeks of gasoline.
The woman's eyes are open but vacant. Kouperinis tells her to focus on his finger, which he waves in front of her face. He has seen other immigrants pulled from the chilled waters, only to die in his arms as their bodies are overcome by the shock and the cumulative effect of their ordeal. His goal is to keep them awake and aware, which is why he gently taps her face and waves that finger.
"Welcome to Europe,'' Kouperinis tells her. He says she is not going back to Libya. Instead, they are headed to Italy. The woman slowly raises her finger to mimic his. Gasol stands directly next to them, his face a mixture of awe and disbelief.
Gasol says nothing but pats Kouperinis, his newest teammate, on the back. As the rubber boats head toward Open Arms, Gasol looks back at the planks of wood, the tattered, mangled rubber shell of the raft, the empty water bottles, the near-empty blue barrel of petrol, the lone plastic sandal and the compass encased in a piece of light-colored wood bobbing on the surface.
The medical crew is waiting on Open Arms. The woman is wrapped in a gold foil blanket and then in a blue blanket. A stack of orange life vests becomes her makeshift bed on the main deck. She is given a small bottle of fluids to drink through a straw.
A crew member asks for volunteers to help move the two remaining bodies upstairs to another deck so a doctor can try to determine time of death. Gasol, his right hand bloody at the knuckles, helps lift the stretcher carrying the corpse of the other woman.
By 11:48 a.m., the woman has whispered her name to the medical crew: Josepha. She is from Cameroon, she says in French.
A decision is made to head north toward the Italian island of Lampedusa, where Camps hopes they can safely offload Josepha, as well as the two non-survivors.
Eventually, Gasol and Camps make their way back to the Astral. Once there, it becomes obvious that the rescue has mushroomed into an international incident, with Camps claiming that the three people from the raft were left to perish by the Libyan Coast Guard after they refused to board its boats. Italy's Salvini declares the claim "lies and insults.'' The story is picked up by newspapers, TV stations and internet sites around the world.
"If [Proactiva] wasn't here to witness what happened and actually rescue a woman, nobody would have saw, would have heard even about this,'' Gasol says. "Sometimes you feel rage, anger because you see it so close. ...''
Gatti has warned that the increasing winds will make the seas rough. By nightfall, the waves are nearing 7 feet, and at least one member of the volunteer crew has lost his dinner over the side. Gasol arrives on the captain's deck looking a little queasy. He has been driven from his cabin by the bobbing of the ship and the stench that arrives when the toilets bubble up from the motion.
Meanwhile, Camps tells us that Lampedusa is no longer an option. Instead, we will sail to a Spanish-controlled harbor, either Palma on the island of Mallorca or perhaps farther north to Barcelona, where Open Arms and the Astral left the previous week. At our present speed, we will reach Palma, where Gatti happens to live, by Saturday morning.
Wednesday, July 18, 2:30 p.m.
Gasol visits Open Arms again. He speaks with one of the rescue swimmers, Javier Filgueira, who, like Gasol, is on his first mission. Filgueira helped get Josepha from the wood plank to the speedboat. Asked what he remembers most from those moments, he says, "her eyes.''
Filgueira has a favor to ask: Will Gasol pose with him for a photo? Gasol happily agrees. He smiles a different smile than the one four days earlier at the Barcelona airport.
"Obviously, these guys are heroes to me,'' says Gasol, who returns to the Astral later in the day. "They see somebody in risk, and they don't think twice about jumping in the water.''
According to Camps, Josepha has been sleeping soundly, an encouraging sign. Camps says she will need more medical care, including psychological help. The reality of the situation has hit her. Camps says Josepha asked, "Where are all the others?''
Thursday, July 19, 12:30 p.m.
Dr. Giovanna Scaccabarozzi has been treating Josepha since her Tuesday morning arrival on Open Arms. Scaccabarozzi can only guess how long Josepha was in the water, but he says the woman was experiencing "critical'' hypothermia.
"The condition we found her was really at the edge, between life and death,'' Scaccabarozzi says.
Today we see Josepha out on the main deck again, with the medical crew gently rubbing lotion on her tender legs, arms and hands. She sips from a bottle of liquid and occasionally says something to the nurse or doctor.
But as a small crowd begins to form around her, we are asked to give Josepha her privacy.
Friday, July 20, 11:00 a.m.
Gasol and Camps spend most of the day on Open Arms. Gasol even helps carry Josepha, whose legs are too weak to walk, from her room to the fresh air of the main deck. Josepha, he says, is "happy, but it's going to be tough for her now because she's going to face a different scenario. And we got to give her time because it's not easy to go through what she went through -- and now deal with a lot more.''
During the visit that day, Camps gives Josepha the rosary presented to him during one of his visits with the Pope. In turn, Scaccabarozzi presents Camps with a statement dictated by Josepha to one of the aides.
"I was at sea with many people from Africa,'' the letter begins. "When they abandoned me, they all left with another boat. I thought I was already dead.''
"I'm not afraid,'' another part of her letter states. "And then I started singing a song. When I finished the song, I fell asleep until the moment I found myself here in this boat. Here I'm with people with a big heart.''
Once back on the Astral, Camps shares more photos, and the crew begins telling stories to Gasol and the other volunteers. They tell of a rescue in which three Libyans were found in a tiny raft. They wore hats, and in the raft they had a guitar and a case of beer. They told their rescuers, "If we were going to die, we were going to die happy.''
The final decision has been made: The ships will dock in Palma.
Saturday, July 20, 6:19 a.m.
PALMA, Mallorca -- As the sun rises, we can see the capital city of Mallorca in the distance. A Guardia Civil boat monitors our arrival, as do two boats with TV crews.
Gasol arrives on deck with a cup of coffee, crackers and his cell phone. "4G!'' he says, the connectivity bars in full force.
Another police boat arrives as we get closer to the harbor. Open Arms moves slowly to the left, ordered by the port authority to dock at a different area than the Astral is headed to.
At 9:22, Gatti turns off those two Caterpillar diesels. Dock workers secure the ship. The mission is complete.
Four police officers board the Astral, do a quick check and leave. We are told that Josepha will be taken to a local hospital. She has 30 days to apply for political asylum. Camps says Proactiva will assist in any way possible on her behalf.
Gasol gathers his things. He will soon join Camps, Gatti and the Open Arms captain to testify about the rescue to maritime authorities at a Saturday morning hearing. A news conference is scheduled for 12:30 p.m.
"I think now we have a responsibility to explain and show the world what we witnessed,'' he says.
Gasol says that if he didn't have to return to his own family in Barcelona, "I would not leave the boat.'' He is still wearing his Astral T-shirt, given to him when he boarded the yacht the previous Monday.
"To be part of their team is like -- it's not a jersey that you put on. It's deeper than that, and you connect,'' he says. "You're so vulnerable out there: your feelings, emotions, where you're at. Everything is so real and pure ... they have each other's back.
"I've been here, what, one mission? Saved one person. They've done 47 missions and saved over 60,000 people.''
He feels sheepish about being the center of this story, but he did so because of a cause he believes in.
"A lot of times people tell you what to do,'' he says. "I'd rather show you what I do.''
Gasol says he will not tell his 4-year-old daughter, Julia, about where he has been or what he has seen. But if she persisted, what would he say?
"Daddy was helping people,'' he says. "Daddy was helping people. He tried to do everything in his hands to help people.''