[3 QUESTIONS TO] Mary, Search and Rescue Team member

“For me, the most challenging aspect of rescue is the unknown. Every rescue can take a turn for the worst at any moment and this is something we all have to be prepared for.”

Mary was only 19 when she first joined SOS MEDITERRANEE in September 2016 and has spent a total of about 6 months on board the Aquarius, the first vessel chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE. She has completed her first year of studying midwifery, a career Mary chose during her time on the Aquarius. She decided to join the SOS MEDITERRANEE SAR team again while on her summer break, this time on the Ocean Viking, before continuing her studies.

What made you decide to take part in the Ocean Viking’s 9th mission in these times of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Despite the global pandemic, people are still risking their lives to escape Libya. They deserve and need to be rescued and to live. Even though all around the world, we have seen the effects of lockdown on our everyday livespeople working from home, shops, cafes and bars closing, limited freedom of movement and so many other precautions – some activities just cannot afford to be put on hold any longer. SOS MEDITERRANEE has been out of operation for a few months due to disruptions in the maritime and Central Mediterranean context, the time also for the organisation to adapt its protocols to the sanitary context. We are now prepared to operate in the safest conditions possible for the crew and the rescued people. The logistical challenges of this are huge and complicated but if we are able to operate safely then we have a duty to those that live in danger every single day regardless of the pandemic and risk their lives to find safety. I feel confident that we are prepared to face rescues in these challenging times and that as many precautions as possible are being taken to protect our crew and those that we rescue. 

You used to be a rescuer on board the Aquarius for six months in total –in 2016 and 2017. What is the most challenging part of a rescue operation for you?

For me, the most challenging aspect of rescue is the unknown. Every rescue can take a turn for the worst at any moment and this is something we all have to be prepared for. There has never been a rescue where I didn’t feel slightly nervous all the way through, even in the best-case scenarios. Until every single person is safe onboard the mothership, they are in danger because of the overcrowded and unseaworthy boats they are on in such a dangerous stretch of open water. It’s always astonishing to hear that most of them have no idea how far away Italy is from Libya, many of them told me that they were told by the smugglers to head towards the oil platforms just off the coast of Libya and by morning they would be there…. in Italy! When we are on our way to a Place of Safety for their disembarkation, they are shocked by how far it is and the realisation of the fact that they would never have made it in their boats hits them. 

How do you connect with people in distress before bringing them to safety onboard fast rescue boats (RHIBs)?  

On the first approach to the boats in distress, one of our rescuers gives a first message about who we are, what we will do and telling the people to remain calm and follow instructions. As a crew member on the RHIBs, it is important not to distract the line of communication between the people and the focal point, however we are acting as the eyes in the back. It is important to keep an overall perspective of the whole situation and be able to spot issues when they arise. As I am often one of the only women on the RHIBs I especially feel the connection when we begin to rescue women and children. They often feel so relieved that they wrap their arms around me in embrace, crying and thanking us profusely. I have even received gifts from women in this moment! One woman presented me with a necklace as a sign of her gratitude! This really touched me as these people have fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs, being rescued was their only hope of life, it’s a momentous moment! Sometimes the people are extremely cooperative and make the rescue easier, smoother and safer. However, more challenging conditions often lead to a higher level of panic and stress which is always a worry for a rescue. Especially when rescuing boats at night, there is increased tension and stress, it is also more difficult to make a good connection with the people with flashlights everywhere blocking our faces and body language – it is amazing what a smile can do!