Rescuers 'failed' in search for SIEV 358

Nicolas Perpitch
June 26 2013

AUSTRALIAN rescue authorities did not comply with their obligations to send emergency broadcasts or start a search for an asylum-seeker boat which sank in waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island with the loss of 112 lives, a coronial inquest has been told.

Indonesia's search and rescue authority Basarnas was also sharply criticised for its inaction after a series of distress calls from the Kaniva, an Indonesian fishing boat with 212 male asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran on board, which had left Java on June 18 last year.

The old, overcrowded boat, codenamed SIEV 358, capsized 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island on June 21 in rough seas. Three merchant ships and two Australian navy vessels rescued 110 people, but 85 people remain missing, presumed drowned.

West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope is examining the deaths of 17 people whose bodies were recovered and whether transfer of responsibility for the search from Australia to Indonesia complied with a 2004 agreement.

In his opening address, counsel assisting the coroner Marco Tedeschi told the court Australia's Rescue Co-ordination Centre received the first of several satellite calls from the boat at 7.52pm on June 19. The inquest was played recordings of calls where passengers told the operator they were taking on water and had no life jackets.

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre contacted Basarnas requesting it co-ordinate the search and rescue operation at 12.06pm on June 20. More than six hours later, Basarnas confirmed it would.

Mr Tedeschi noted that more than 11 hours had elapsed by this time since the first call and no emergency broadcast had yet been made and no search and rescue action had been initiated by either country.

He outlined the terms of the 2004 search and rescue arrangement between Australia and Indonesia in which the rescue co-ordination centre which received the first distress call, in this case Australia, had responsibility for the search and rescue efforts until authority was transferred.

"Notwithstanding that SIEV 358 was in Indonesian territorial waters or its search and rescue area, the reality was the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had responded to distress calls from people on the boat . . . and was under an obligation to commence rescue operations," he said.

Instead, Mr Tedeschi added, "the major focus of RCC Australia was on transferring the search and rescue operation to Indonesia and relaying the distress messages and position of the boat. They needed to do more. They needed to issue emergency calls."

There was also no evidence of discussion as to whether Basarnas was best placed and best equipped to co-ordinate the rescue operation, as required under the 2004 agreement before authority could be transferred. Mr Tedeschi said Basarnas had very little capacity to respond and claimed it was "beyond dispute" the organisation never in fact co-ordinated a search and rescue operation.

Two days after the incident started, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority issued an emergency broadcast to merchant vessels. Three ships responded, including one which arrived on the scene within an hour and immediately started saving people.


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