Boat told to turn back before tragedy

Christiana Jones
West Australian
June 26 2013

Asylum seekers aboard an ill-fated wooden boat that was taking on water were told to turn back to Indonesia in the lead-up to the tragedy, an inquest was told yesterday.

The inquest into the death of passengers aboard the SIEV 358 in Indonesian waters last year was told that survivors said the packed boat appeared termite-damaged and had lifejackets that fell apart.

Counsel assisting Coroner Alastair Hope, Marco Tedeschi, said the inquest would look at why Australian authorities did not assume responsibility and launch a search and rescue in the 48 hours between a passenger's first call and the point at which an "urgency broadcast" was issued by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre Australia on June 21.

The broadcast, which came after an Australian aircraft patrol saw people clinging to an upturned hull, sparked a quick response from merchant ships and two navy vessels which rescued 110 of the Pakistani, Afghani and Iranian men.

Seventeen bodies were pulled from the water and 85 remain missing, with the inquest told many people were trapped under the hull of the capsized boat.

Mr Tedeschi suggested that despite the vessel being in Indonesian waters, a 2004 agreement meant Australian authorities were obliged to co- ordinate a response and start a rescue until Indonesian authorities were able to take over.

The submission was "hotly contested" by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, barrister Stephen Owen- Conway said.

"This case is going to turn on what is meant by 'distress' under the relevant conventions," Mr Owen-Conway said. The inquest heard calls in which a passenger used a satellite phone to contact the RCCA on the evening of June 19.

The caller said the vessel was taking on water and left Indonesia three days earlier. The RCCA operator said that if his boat was broken he needed "to turn back to Indonesia . . . Christmas Island is a long way away", with the caller responding "OK, OK, OK" and hanging up.


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