Fishermen Who Brave the Seas to Rescue Migrants Now Need Saving

Image: Volunteers help migrants and refugees on a dingy as they arrive at the shore of the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos
Volunteers help migrants and refugees on a dingy as they arrive at the shore of the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on March 20, 2016.Petros Giannakouris / AP

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By Kelly Cobiella

SKALA SIKAMIAS, Greece — The fishermen who voluntarily rescue migrants from rickety boats or overcrowded dinghies have been left unable to help or work after freezing weather wrecked their vessels.

In the Greek village of Skala Sikamias on the island of Lesbos, Kostas Pideris and Thanasis Marmarinos examined their boats on dry land, propped on wood slats next to the harbor.

“I had 17 people on this boat at one time,” Marmarinos said. “All children.”

"My heart stopped. I was the living dead"

With just 150 inhabitants, the village has been at the forefront of Europe's migrant crisis. Thousands of people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea seeking new lives in the West.

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At the height of the refugee crisis in Sept. 2015, the 63-year-old Marmarinos and the rest of the village's fishermen gave up working to spend months saving families from the rough, cold waters.

Many of them were seeking safety from the bombs falling on Syria.

“Mothers, pregnant women, children,” Marmarinos recalled. “So many children, all in the waters, wet, in a horrible situation.”

Pideris, 40, says the fishermen risked their own lives “because it was the humane thing to do.”

Greek fisherman Kostas Pideris risked his life and livelihood to safe migrants fleeing war and desperation.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

He said refugees and migrants “would fall overboard, they didn't know how to navigate, boats were left adrift, they'd lose their engines, they'd break apart and the sea would fill with people."

But today, it's Pideris and Marmarinos who need help after a winter storm on January 9 dropped nearly two feet of snow in their village. The boat canopies couldn't take the weight and capsized while tied up in the harbor.

The boats are the pair's sole sources of income.

Pideris said he was in shock. “I've been in danger at sea, fishing and helping refugees, and my boat sinks in the safety of the harbor," he said. "My brain stopped. My heart stopped. I was the living dead.”

Both vessels sat in the corrosive sea water for three days, until the roads cleared enough to bring in a crane. The electronics and engines on both vessels were destroyed and require thousands of dollars in repairs.

A little pink life jacket lies in a giant dump of thousands of life jackets and rubber dinghies have been discarded in the Greek island of Lesbos.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

The mayor of Lesbos says money from a humanitarian award — the Olof Palme prize, which given to the islanders for embracing migrants — will go toward the cost of repairs.

Marmarinos says he's proud “because I offered help and I see it's coming back to me ... Even if no one helped I'd still be proud and if it happens again, I'd do the same."

Marmarinos and Pideris hope to be fishing again by early next month.

Ziad Jaber contributed.