The following recap provides insights into the events from late April 20, when the Ocean Viking received a first distress alert from civil hotline Alarm Phone, to April 22, when the team on board witnessed the aftermath of a tragic shipwreck that claimed the lives of up to 130 people in international waters off Libya.
This overview also sheds light on the flow of information during these days and the absence of communication and information sharing from any maritime authority to the Ocean Viking, the only dedicated NGO Search and Rescue naval asset in the area at the time. For a complete and detailed account of communication to and from the bridge of the Ocean Viking, please refer to our online logbook onboard.sosmediterranee.org.
Late on Tuesday night, 20 April, the Ocean Viking received a first distress alert to a wooden boat carrying approximately 40 people. The last known position was approximately 10 hours from the Ocean Viking’s position at the time of reception. The Ocean Viking started heading to the position during the night. Both Alarm Phone and the Ocean Viking kept the relevant authorities (LYJRCC, MTRCC, ITMRCC) informed at all times.
On Wednesday morning, 21 April, the Ocean Viking received two further distress alerts from Alarm Phone through an email sent by the NGO to the relevant authorities with the Ocean Viking in copy. Both alerts were to rubber boats in distress carrying 100-130 people each. Both of these cases were far east to the area where the Ocean Viking was engaged in active search for the first distress case, the alert to which was received the night before.
The team onboard Ocean Viking searched for the first distress case throughout the day on Wednesday, 21 April. The bridge overheard VHF communication between an unidentified aircraft and the Libyan Coast Guard in which the aircraft gave the Libyan Coast Guard coordinates that most likely corresponded to one of the two rubber boats in distress that Alarm Phone had alerted to on Wednesday morning.
The International Organization for Migration later confirmed that one of the rubber boats was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya on Wednesday, 21 April.
At 17:50 on Wednesday, 21 April, not having succeeded in locating the first distress case, the Ocean Viking started heading towards the location of the remaining rubber boat in distress.* The last known position of the distress case at this time was 121 NM from the Ocean Viking – a minimum of 10 hours sailing eastbound.
On April 21 already, the weather conditions in the Central Mediterranean presented a danger to those attempting to flee Libya in unseaworthy dinghies, which is perilous even when the sea is perfectly calm. Wind and sea conditions further deteriorated in the evening, and waves would reach up to 6 metres during the night.
It was in this rough weather that the following concerning message reached the bridge of the Ocean Viking: At 19.15 on Wednesday, 21 April, an unidentified asset set out a first MAYDAY call on VHF Channel 16, the common marine emergency radio channel. Another MAYDAY call was relayed on VHF Channel 16 at 20:25 by an unidentified asset.
Through the public statements by Frontex in the aftermath of events, we understand that this was likely a Frontex aircraft. This was the first alert to the boat in distress that we know to have been dispatched to all vessels in the area.
In reaction to the first MAYDAY call, three merchant vessels altered their course and headed to the scene. One of them was M/V ALK. Ten minutes later, VHF communication between M/V ALK and Lampedusa Radio, a coastal radio station that serves as an outpost for the Italian Coast Guard, was overheard on the bridge of the Ocean Viking: The M/V ALK relayed the MAYDAY message to Lampedusa Radio, requesting instructions. The radio operator at Lampedusa Radio replied that the distress position is inside the Libyan Search and Rescue Region and tells M/V ALK to contact the Ocean Viking.
In the early hours of Thursday, 22 April, the Ocean Viking arrived to the area of the last known position of the rubber boat in distress, which was received via VHF in the MAYDAY call about 9 hours earlier (Alarm Phone first alerted to this distress case approximately 20 hours earlier) and started conducting a search pattern in coordination with merchant vessels M/V MY ROSE, M/V ALK and M/T VS LISBETH.
The Ocean Viking called ITMRCC at 7.35 am, asking for aerial support. Later, Ocean Viking also called the Frontex office at 8.55 am to ask for aerial support in the search for the boat in distress. In both cases, the Ocean Viking did not receive information as to whether Frontex had dispatched or was going to dispatch assets to the area, but the Osprey 3 Frontex aircraft arrived on scene later in the morning.
At noon, M/V MY ROSE informed Frontex aircraft Osprey 3 that she spotted three bodies in the water. The Ocean Viking called Osprey3 to ask for information on the case, also asking who was coordinating the case. Osprey3 responded that they were only participating in the search, not coordinating the case. The Ocean Viking informed Frontex aircraft Osprey3 and merchant vessel M/V ALK of the ship’s capacity and facilities to recover the bodies. We received no instructions from maritime authorities in this regard.
Twenty minutes later, Osprey3 spotted the wreck of the rubber boat and relayed its position via VHF Channel 16 to the vessels engaged in the search.
One of the merchant vessels engaged in the search, M/V ALK, left the scene and communicated via VHF that the Libyan Coast Guard patrol vessel UBARI was going to coordinate the case. UBARI was not on scene at this point.
At 14.00, the crew on Ocean Viking had a visual on the wreck and on multiple bodies in the water.
Throughout the afternoon, Ocean Viking called the LYJRCC multiple times to ask when the Libyan Coast Guard patrol vessel would arrive on scene. LYJRCC confirmed that patrol vessel UBARI was underway. By nightfall, the patrol boat had not arrived and Ocean Viking had not received instructions from the LYJRCC.
* From information that has since reached Alarm Phone, it appears that the approximately 41 persons on this boat survived and eventually reached Tunisia.
Photo: Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE