Boat tragedy survivors describe hours of terror as rescuers ignored distress signals

July 26, 2013 - 7:41AM
Natalie O'Brien
Canberra Times

Terrified asylum seekers were crying, vomiting and praying to God, their mothers, and their imams in the moments before their boat capsized in rough seas on its way to Australia, drowning 17 men and leaving another 85 missing feared drowned.

One of the survivors of the boat known as the Kaniva or the Siev 358, which sank on June 21 last year, has revealed the boat had been rolling from left to right and taking on water for three days days before it suddenly filled up and went down in a matter of minutes.

The Pakistani man whose identity has been suppressed was giving evidence at a coronial inquest into the sinking which is being held in the West Australian Coroners Court.

The court was also told secret information shared with the manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's search and rescue section, Alan Lloyd, customs, Defence and other federal government agencies about the boat's distress calls had led them to conclude they were ''exaggerated or simply untrue''.

But the survivor, who is now living in Australia, recounted how the sea conditions had become progressively worse during the journey, and they were being hit with such big waves that the majority of passengers wanted to get off the rickety boat.

''There was a lot of educated people on board - a doctor and engineer. They were asking why we should die,'' the man told the inquest.

''People were crying and saying we must go back. They were saying please go back and call for someone to help us. My own language people want to go back because they know, definitely we will die.''

He said calls to the agent who arranged the boat and to the Indonesian police went unheeded. No one came to help them.

The man broke down and wept when he recalled how quickly the boat went down, saying there was no chance to do anything.

''It was unbelievable, I was in the water, I don't know how it happened. I saw people in the water crying and calling to God.''

He said he lost his friend and his cousin and he couldn't face speaking to his aunt because she was still waiting for her son.

''I cannot say he is alive,'' the man said through tears. ''It is very, very, hard to forget this accident.''

The inquest has earlier this week heard criticisms of AMSA's response in a classified government report that said it had not been proactive enough in helping the boat which had made more than 16 calls for help over two days before eventually capsizing.

The first time AMSA sent out a broadcast notice to shipping to help the boat was after its upturned hull had been spotted with survivors clinging to it.

But Mr Lloyd has defended the agency, saying it had assessed that the boat was not in distress and that is why no broadcast was made to any ships in the area to go to its assistance.

Mr Lloyd also revealed it was not just AMSA that thought the boat was not in trouble.

He said several Commonwealth agencies at a high level meeting about the boat had concluded the ''calls from the persons on board being made to rescue co-ordination centre indicating that the persons on board were in danger were exaggerated or simply untrue''.


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