Overload kills on voyage of doom
Wednesday, 24 October, 2001
Mirror Australian Telegraph Publications
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THE Indonesian fishing vessel that took 353 Australia-bound asylum-seekers to their deaths was overloaded with fuel and had more than four times the number of passengers it could safely carry in the heavy seas of the Sunda Strait.

The leaking wooden boat set sail from a port in south Sumatra headed for Christmas Island in the early hours last Thursday after the captain overrode the misgivings of many passengers and declared the vessel seaworthy.

Ten people refused to embark, and almost from the start of the voyage passengers were forced to bail water flowing in through a long crack in the hull. In rough seas, the boat put into an island in the Sunda Strait and 24 passengers refused to continue on Thursday night.

Despite the concerns about the boat's dilapidated condition, 397 people decided to set out for Christmas Island the next morning. About 80km from land at 2pm on Friday, the fishing vessel began to take heavy water, listed violently to the side, capsized and sank within an hour.

About 200 people were believed to be still trapped inside the hull when the boat went under.

"I saw everyone quickly die -- beautiful children, beautiful girls," said one survivor, 43-year-old Amal Hassan, who planned to join her husband who is already in Australia.

There were only 44 survivors -- people who clung to wreckage or one of the vessel's 70 life-vests for 19 hours until they were rescued by fishing boats about noon on Saturday.

Reports of the sinking -- involving the worst loss of life in the history of the boatpeople traffic from Indonesia -- only emerged yesterday when UN officials learned of the survivors' existence.

Survivors interviewed yesterday said they had told Australian officials of the identity of the main people-smuggler behind the operation -- a man identifying himself as an Egyptian citizen named Abu Quessai. He is believed to be associated with one of the biggest people-smuggling rings in Indonesia, operating out of Jakarta.

But signals from Indonesian police yesterday suggested there was unlikely to be any action taken against the smugglers over what would be a major case of manslaughter. Indonesian police spokesman Brigadier Saleh Saaf said the information received by police was that the boat had not sunk but had run out of fuel.

Despite the harrowing stories of survivors, Brigadier Saaf denied anyone had drowned.

However, the International Office of Migration puts the death toll at more than 350. One eight-year-old boy lost 21 members of his family.

Other survivors told reporters yesterday they had lost their entire families.

The 44 survivors, including 33 men, nine women and two children, were picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat and returned to Java. Another fishing boat reportedly pulled four bodies and one survivor from the water.

The survivors are being cared for at a guesthouse in the Gunung Putri district, south of Jakarta. Australian authorities had been monitoring the departure of the boatpeople from Indonesia. Unaware of the tragedy at sea on Saturday, search and rescue officials in Australia issued an overdue notice on Monday morning.

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