Tribute For Salvatore Scilanga, Who Rescued Migrants at Sea, Dies at 51

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

MILAN — When Salvatore Scilanga returned home from missions at sea as an officer in the Italian Coast Guard, he would usually steer the conversation to his wife’s day, or his daughters’ friends and schoolwork.

He avoided talking about the shipwrecks unless he was asked — and was especially careful on those days when his daughters saw him on the television news carrying children in his arms at the port.

Mr. Scilanga’s vessel was involved in rescuing some of the thousands of people fleeing poverty and war by crossing the Mediterranean to Italy, often on rickety, overcrowded boats.

When he did talk about the job, his eyes shiny with tears, he would tell his family about the mothers who gave birth during the rough crossing, the dead bodies and the parents who had lost their children to the sea.

It was more than just a job. “He put himself in their shoes and felt deeply for these people,” his daughter Maria, 21, said in a phone interview.

Mr. Scilanga died of the novel coronavirus on April 10 at a hospital in Catanzaro, in southern Italy’s Calabria region, Ms. Scilanga said. He was 51.

A popular figure in Cirò Marina, the Calabrian town where he lived, Mr. Scilanga did not flaunt his position. He made a point of going home and changing out of his uniform before going shopping after work.

“He never wanted people to know what he did,” his niece Francesca De Franco said. “He just wanted to help.”

Mr. Scilanga’s reticence meant that his family learned only from others — and not until after his death — about the time he had saved his crew by bringing the ship back to port on his own after they had been sickened by a particularly violent sea. They learned that he had often cooked for the whole crew, and that he had bought breakfast for the students who took the same bus he did each morning on his way to work.

Salvatore Scilanga was born in Cirò Marina on Feb. 23, 1969. His father, Giuseppe, was a farmer; his mother, Maria, was a homemaker. He was the youngest of 11 siblings, four of whom died in childhood.

At 14, Salvatore worked as a waiter to help support himself and his family before joining the Coast Guard. He advanced to the rank of “primo maresciallo,” equivalent to chief warrant officer 5 in the U.S. Navy. He was notified in February that he would be promoted to lieutenant; the rank became official posthumously.

Along with Maria Scilanga, Mr. Scilanga is survived by another daughter, Teresa, and his wife, Adelaide Corigliano.

Teresa, who will graduate from high school this summer, said she was drawn to the idea of helping others. She plans to join the Coast Guard. “I know he would be proud of me,” she said.

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