Ships save asylum-seekers headed for Christmas Island

Lauren Wilson and Debbie Guest
June 23, 2012 12:00AM

WHEN Captain Eric Bilango pulled his merchant ship alongside a capsized asylum-seeker vessel, its red hull was already disappearing and 30 men in lifejackets were being swept into the heavy seas.

After responding to a mayday alert from Australian authorities, Captain Bilango's JPO Vulpecula was the first merchant vessel to arrive at the scene just before 5pm on Thursday.

Conditions were fierce but his crew lost no time and launched rescue craft in a desperate bid to help the survivors.

"We did our best, but the weather, it was very, very rough. It was not so good; we were able to recover about 27 people," the ship's master said.

"We didn't see dead bodies in the water but there were some lifejackets floating around."

Over three gruelling hours, Captain Bilango and his crew pulled 27 Afghan and Pakistani men out of the estimated 200 passengers who were on the boat from the choppy seas, fed them and wrapped them in blankets.

Captain Bilango was modest about his role. "It is our duty to save the lives of people at sea," he said.

His efforts and those of his crew were a key part of a rescue mission that is likely to continue until sunset today. Australian navy and commercial vessels and surveillance aircraft continued to scour the ocean for survivors overnight, but hopes were fading.

Three asylum-seekers have been confirmed to have drowned and more than 100 are thought to have died in the latest tragedy to befall those attempting the perilous journey across the sea.

Most of the 109 survivors, including a 13-year-old boy, were last night recovering on Christmas Island after being plucked from the sea by two navy vessels and two commercial ships, including the JPO Vulpecula. Three were evacuated to a Perth hospital for urgent treatment, one with suspected spinal injuries.

Others were believed to be suffering hypothermia and dehydration and at least 10 were transported via ambulance to the island's small hospital.

The latest tragedy has brought renewed calls for an end to the bitter political standoff on asylum-seekers and a genuine effort by politicians to find a workable solution that will stop the deaths at sea.

Liberal MP Mal Washer called on Tony Abbott to consider supporting Labor's Malaysia Solution.

The Liberal moderate urged both parties to "put decency over politics".

Dr Washer said he believed the highly charged nature of politics in the hung parliament had worked against a rational solution and he did not want to "vote against one idiot over another in a dumb and dumber competition".

His call for action was backed by independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, who called for an end to toxic politics on the issue.

The first sign of trouble emerged late on Tuesday night, when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority picked up a call for help from a vessel in Indonesia's search and rescue zone.

Australian authorities said they called the Indonesian search and rescue agency BASARNAS and told them.

Ships and aircraft from several nations were involved in the desperate search for survivors 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

Border Protection Minister Jason Clare said search crews saw abandoned lifejackets floating in the sea and bodies clad in lifejackets. He said the 36-hour window in which those clinging to debris might survive was closing fast.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent yesterday, Australian authorities faced questions about their response.

Refugee advocates including Ian Rintoul and Pamela Curr said earlier action should have been taken and the tragedy was preventable.

Indonesian search and rescue officials yesterday admitted an alert was received from Australian authorities late on Tuesday night, but they did not act on it until they had held a "co-ordination meeting" on Wednesday morning.

After that meeting, a helicopter was sent to search the coastal region around Sukabumi, in West Java.

Staff at BASARNAS in Jakarta, who asked not to be identified, said a "maritime alert" to nearby shipping was also put out on Wednesday and two Indonesian navy vessels in the area were put on alert. BASARNAS spokesman Gagah Prakoso said those vessels failed to find the boat: "Eventually we found out from Australian communications that an Australian boat had already rescued 110.".

At least four separate alerts were sent to BASARNAS by the AMSA between late on Tuesday night and Thursday.

Mr Clare confirmed several calls for assistance were made from a satellite phone on the vessel, which was bobbing 38 nautical miles south of the Indonesian mainland, to Australian authorities in the early hours of Wednesday morning. AMSA officials told the crew to turn around and head back towards Indonesia. The crew flouted the warnings and continued south to Christmas Island.

Flyovers conducted by AMSA search and rescue planes failed to detect visible signs of distress, but it is understood further distress calls were made from the boat.

By the early hours of Thursday morning, it became clear the boat was at risk.

Border protection patrol boats were moved north in preparation for a rescue mission while surveillance flights tried to locate the asylum-seekers.

About 1.30pm, mayday alerts went out to the JPO Vulpecula and the another merchant vessel, the Taiwanese ship the Cape Oceania.

Captain Lian-Sheng Xu instructed his crew to prepare ropes and net ladders and within three hours reached the scene of the disaster, 45 minutes after the JPO Vulpecula.

By 7pm, the Cape Oceania's rescue dinghy had pulled four survivors from the water.

One of the crew onboard the vessel told The Weekend Australian: "When we got to the first person, he was very sad, very upset. We stayed on the sea and we kept trying to rescue them and we picked up three more survivors. Then the sky has fallen black, it was dark and we cannot see."

At 8pm, both merchant vessels received instructions from the Australian official who was co-ordinating the rescue mission over the radio. They were told all boats except for the navy ship HMAS Larrakia were to cease with the rescue effort.

The Cape Oceania had saved the lives of four Pakistani men - 22-year old Najmul Hassaiu, 25-year-old Sayed Gbtikhar Hassaiu, 33-year-old Musadig Hassaiu and 35-year-old Asghar Hassaiu.

The crewman said the men were shaken: "They were very worried about others, maybe their friends or family. We provide food, water and blankets and we get news from the rescue co-ordination centre of Australia that instructed us to proceed to Christmas Island."

The JPO Vulpecula arrived at Christmas Island first, about 3am yesterday.

The Cape Oceania arrived four hours later.

Before dawn broke back at the scene of the incident, another two merchant ships had arrived to help, the Margaret River Bridge and the Conti Silenti.

Second officer of the Margaret River, Corsini Abrea, said his crew found no survivors, only the floating body of one of the victims.

"We only found one deceased person, floating, and we reported that to the warship," he said.

"We also found a red (life) jacket at the same time but there was no person attached to it."

Mr Abrea said his crew would continue searching for survivors for as long as they could.

The captain of the Conti Silenti, Jerry Paloma, said every person in charge of a vessel had a responsibility to help those in distress at sea.

"I am praying there will be survivors," he said.



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