Safety fears before fatal asylum voyage

Christiana Jones
West Australian
June 25, 2013, 1:10 pm

Survivors of a fatal sea voyage that saw dozens of asylum seekers perish told investigators the termite-damaged boat seemed on the verge of collapsing and its life jackets fell apart at the seams.

The details were mentioned in the opening address at an inquest being held into those who died in June last year when the SIEV 358 sank in Indonesian waters.

Of the 212 men aboard, 17 were recovered dead from the water and 85 remain missing, presumed dead.

110 survivors were pulled from water by merchant vessels and two Navy ships as part of a search and rescue coordinated by Australian authorities. An Australian aircraft saw passengers clinging to the upturned hull on June 21 and prompted an urgency distress broadcast by Australian auhtorities.

The emergency broadcast came almost two days after the Rescue Coordination Centre of Australia first received calls from unknown male on the vessel saying it was crowded and lacked life jackets.

Today, the Perth Coroner's Court started looking at why Australian authorities had not assumed responsibility and sparked the rescue efforts earlier instead of Indonesian authorities.

Counsel assisting Coroner Alastair Hope, Marco Tedeschi, said that notwithstanding the fact the overcrowded timber vessel was not in Australian search and rescue waters, Australian authorities were better placed to coordinate the efforts or at least take part in a combined rescue operation.

Mr Tedeschi said Indonesia's organisation Basarnas gave an unsatisfactory response to the situation and it appeared that despite its claim that it had coordinated with the Indonesian Maritime Safety and Indonesian navy, it appeared the navy had not been involved at all.

Mr Tedeschi said Basarnus had only confirmed it would coordinate the situation six hours after requested to do so by Australia. Mr Tedeschi said that Australia had been obliged under a 2004 agreement to coordinate the situation up until that point because it was the first to be notified of the distressed vessel.

Mr Tedeschi highlighted that once Australia issued an urgency broadcast on June 21, vessels had responded quickly - with the first survivor pulled from the water an hour after the broadcast.

The inquest heard that the wooden fishing boat's pump had stopped working after it became covered in water. The ship had capsized almost 204km south of indonesia's Sunda Strait.

Many of the Pakistani, Afghani and Iranian men who had been fleeing Taliban and terrorist groups in their homelands were trapped under the hull.

Survivors had told investigators they had raised concerns at the start of the illegal voyage, with the boat making "noises like it was going to break" when they boarded.

One man said he had to be careful when he walked on the timber deck "otherwise you may have fallen through the floor". Passengers had tried to prevent others boarding, saying "we will drown" because of the overcrowding.

"Substandard" life jackets, which were not enough for all passengers, appeared to be bought from the "Indonesian equivalent of K-Mart", Mr Tedeschi said, and were still wrapped in plastic.

Once submerged in water, they had started to fall apart at the seams, he said. The inquest continues.


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