High seas error turns elation to agony

Brendan Nicholson and Paige Taylor
March 26, 2013 12:00AM

AT the moment when boarding operations are at their most dangerous, the three inexperienced Indonesian crewmen on a boat laden with asylum-seekers made their fatal mistake.

As a boarding party from a Customs patrol vessel approached the boat north of Christmas Island soon after sunrise yesterday, the young fishermen should have slowed their vessel so that the Australian officers could clamber on to its deck.

Instead, they cut their engine, a decision that left the overloaded wooden boat to swing broadside on to the waves and at the total mercy of the elements. The crew was caught by surprise as a large wave slammed into the vessel, making it roll steeply sideways. Boatpeople arrivals have more than doubled in the first three months of this year, and yesterday's arrival brought that figure to 2769, dwarfing the 1259 who arrived from January to March last year.

On yesterday's boat were 92 asylum-seekers, many from the mountains of Afghanistan and totally unfamiliar with the sea. Elation at the sight of the Australian vessel gave way to terror as many of these passengers fell or rushed away from the wave.

Then a second large wave smashed into the boat, driving it on to its side and hurtling many of those aboard into the ocean.

Two asylum-seekers, including a boy aged four or five and a woman in her 30s, were killed, the latest of many hundreds to die on the dangerous voyage; two others were badly injured.

One of the injured is a pregnant woman in her 20s suffering breathing difficulties, possibly from swallowing water and diesel fuel. The other is a boy of six or seven. Two Customs officers who boarded the vessel were thrown into the water as the boat rolled but they were rescued unhurt.

In the frantic rescue operation that followed, 90 asylum-seekers and three Indonesian crew members were rescued.

The Customs vessel, Ocean Protector, had found the fishing boat in darkness and shadowed it until dawn, its captain anxious to avoid a dangerous night boarding.

Soon after sunrise yesterday, a boarding party lowered its fast rigid inflatable boats and headed for the Indonesian vessel.

Border Protection Minister Jason Clare said it appeared that as the vessel slowed, it lost stability.

"When a vessel stops motoring along, its stability is significantly reduced," Mr Clare said.

The Ocean Protector delivered shocked survivors to Christmas Island.

Most of the rescued children were carried off the jetty by guards from the island's detention facilities.

Some of the adults appeared extremely weak and were either helped to walk to waiting buses or put in wheelchairs.

Last of all came what were believed to be the bodies of the deceased, wrapped in silver blankets and put into a waiting ambulance.

At the end of the jetty, the gazebo where Christmas Island residents meet for barbecues and children's birthday parties became a makeshift triage area.

The two seriously injured were still being treated on Ocean Protector late yesterday.

Last June, 18 bodies were brought to the island from two separate asylum boat disasters.

And in 2010, residents tried in vain to rescue a boat that broke apart on cliffs, killing 50 people.

The administrator of Australia's Indian Ocean territories, Jon Stanhope, said the stream of asylum-boats had brought full employment to Christmas Island, but the island's three detention facilities had "cast a massive shadow".

"Today there is an enormous undeniable sadness about what has happened. I feel sad today.

"It affects all of us," he said.

The head of Border Protection Command, David Johnston, said conditions at the time of the tragedy were defined as "sea state three", with a swell of 1m to 2.5m and wind of about 15 knots.

That was within limits for boarding operations to be carried out safely, Rear Admiral Johnston said.

As the end of the monsoon season nears, more boats are expected to leave Indonesian ports for Australia.

The opposition's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said the latest tragedy came as no surprise at a time of record boatpeople arrivals. "Another two souls have been lost at sea as the chaos, cost and tragedy continues on our borders. They join more than a thousand who are believed to have perished as a result of trying to make this dangerous journey," he said.

The boat is thought to have left from the western Java coast early on Saturday.

However, officials said the seasonal improvement in weather conditions with the passing of the Indian Ocean monsoon had seen an upsurge in traffic on the Christmas Island route since last month.

In the fortnight before yesterday's accident, 11 fishing boats carrying more than 700 people from the Java coast had arrived in waters near Christmas Island.

A Customs aircraft and a navy patrol boat, HMAS Maitland, were searching the area late yesterday as a precaution but Rear Admiral Johnston said he believed all aboard were accounted for.

Additional reporting: Peter Alford


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