SIEV 69 rescue skipper 'went fishing'

Joel Magarey
June 20, 2013 12:00AM

The SIEV 69 sinks in November 2009 with the drowning deaths of 13 people. The coroner says the actions of the captain of a fishing boat were 'callous and irresponsible' Source: Supplied

IT WAS dusk when the boat went down and its passengers slid, jumped or fell into the roiling ocean.

As the waves began sucking them under, a ship that had been ordered to save their lives steamed away from the scene, resisting frantic radio instructions to return - because its captain was determined to go fishing.

With the West Australian coroner due on Tuesday to begin a new inquest into asylum-seeker mass drownings, The Australian has obtained that coroner's latest finding into the sinking of SIEV 69 in November 2009 and the deaths of 13 people following the "callous and irresponsible" actions of the captain of a Japan-based fishing trawler.

Only the persistence and threats of a Canberra public servant at the other end of a radio would prevent more deaths by finally forcing the captain back, overriding the concern reportedly expressed by the skipper "to look after their fishing - large amount of money in Taiwan".

Coroner Alastair Hope's finding, brought down in December but not previously reported, criticises the "surprising and apparently callous action of the captain of Kuang Win in leaving the scene" as well as communications from the reluctant vessel that "showed a remarkable disregard for the suffering and deaths" of the asylum-seekers.

Concluding that the original organisers of the catastrophic asylum-seeker voyage had contributed to the 13 deaths, Coroner Hope also found that "if the . . . Kuang Win had taken positive action earlier, all (lives) would have been saved".

Despite this, the captain, described in the finding only as a Japanese person named "Captain Abe", has escaped numerous efforts by Australian authorities to bring him to account, and Coroner Hope has decided against a fresh referral to authorities.

The finding forms a gruesome backdrop to events unfolding amid the tragic saga of mass drownings of asylum-seekers, more than 1000 of whom are estimated to have died at sea since 2001.

On Tuesday, another West Australian coronial inquest will begin into the deaths of an estimated 93 people on a boat that sank on June 21 last year after having made distress calls to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority over nearly two days.

Revelations of the finding and the fresh inquest arise amid a series of last-ditch calls from prime ministerial appointee to the expert panel on asylum-seekers, Paris Aristotle, for parliamentarians to come up with "an agreed approach that can prevent more deaths" before the end of the current parliament next week.

"They have the ability to change their minds in the next two weeks if they want to," Mr Aristotle told the ABC last Tuesday, "and if they don't, more people are likely to die". The latest asylum-seeker tragedy to have a coronial finding began in earnest on October 30, 2009, when passengers on the SIEV 69, a wooden vessel containing 40 male Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, noticed a leak when they were about 350 nautical miles northwest of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

By November 1, water was entering the hull "to a concerning extent", and calls were made on a satellite phone to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

By 8.02am AMSA issued a distress call. Two vessels were headed towards the scene, the Bahamas-flagged gas tanker LNG Pioneer and the Taiwan-registered fishing vessel Kuang Win.

After the first vessel, the Kuang Win, arrived on the scene around 12.25pm, asylum-seekers were "standing on top of the cabin, obviously hoping to be rescued" or "using buckets to bale".

Instead of starting efforts to offload the asylum-seekers, Captain Abe kept his fishing trawler at a distance; he would later give the reason, among others, that he feared the asylum-seekers were pirates.

When two asylum-seekers swam to the Kuang Win to tell its captain their ship would "sink within an hour", they were given food and water and made to swim back.

By 3.28pm, as the Kuang Win's captain waited for the LNG Pioneer to arrive, he was becoming impatient, a transcript of noted exchanges showing why.

"This gentleman (Captain Abe) is now in a situation", an interpreter translating the communications between an AMSA officer and the captain is reported to have said.

"His company does not know that he is helping with the other boat and (he is) worried about his fishing".

With assiduous persuasion the AMSA officer convinced Captain Abe he must stay just long enough to transfer the asylum-seekers on to the LNG Pioneer.

But Captain Abe then said he had "no idea how those people can be rescued", and that he would "have difficulty" getting close to the tanker.

At 6.18pm, just as the LNG Pioneer arrived, the Kuang Win steamed off.

Within a matter of minutes, the asylum-seekers were in the sea. The AMSA operator began attempting to persuade the Kuang Win to return.

"They tried to look after their fishing - large amount of money in Taiwan", was how the interpreter represented the Kuang Win's response. "They have to look after their interests."

The AMSA officer's reply: "But there are people in the water drowning."

With repeated threats to inform authorities, AMSA finally turned the Kuang Win around.

But by the time it returned - between two and four hours after it had left - it was well after dark, impeding the recovery of survivors.


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