Saving 900 people off three boats in a 12 hour rescue operation
We were right with our prediction that the small time window, a few days after Christmas, would allow people to flee Libya. After having a rough sea with high waves for some days, the weather conditions improved on Tuesday and Wednesday. But the good weather would not last very long, as we would find out in the coming 24 hours…
On Wednesday, 20 minutes after midnight coordination centre for the rescues in the Mediterranean Sea called the Aquarius, “We know of two wooden boats in distress, west of Tripoli. Please go there to rescue.” The distance is less than 10 nautical miles and we arrive at the location after just 30 minutes. But we cannot find any wooden boat.
“It was quite difficult to locate the boats as it was in the middle of the night and currently there is no moon, so it is really dark without the light of the moon” say SAR coordinator Yohann. “We were searching for almost 2 hours and finally we found a blue wooden boat and not much further another white wooden boat.”
The rescue operation started around 02:15 early Wednesday morning. We did not know yet, that this would be a complicated and long rescue operation for us.
“Our first rescue boat approached the blue wooden boat and collected the first information. We talked to the people, calmed them down, and then we started to distribute life jackets. That took us 30 minutes, as there were over 500 people on different decks” Nicola the deputy SAR coordinator says. An Arabic speaking mediator of MSF, Aali, is on our first rescue boat. “They told me that there are women and children under deck. It was not easy to calm them down,” he says.
On the first rescue shuttle from the blue wooden boat SOS MEDITERRANEE can transfer 18 women and two very young children. But suddenly the situation changed. “There was talk that on the second, smaller wooden boat, water was leaking inside. We checked the situation and it does not look very stable and safe,” said Anthony, a member of the SAR team on the RHIBS.
“We had to act and we decided to evacuate people from the white boat at the same time” said coordinator Yohann. It was still dark, luckily there was almost no wind and the waves were very small. A British Navy vessel was 20 miles away and would hopefully reach the spot in less than one hour. Another nearby ship, a gas tanker, tried to support, but their speed boat was too small.
“And then the situation changed again. We were told of an unconscious person. First on the blue wooden boat and then also on the white wooden boat,” said Yohann. “So we had to transfer these medical cases right away. Both men were breathing, but unconscious. And in the white boat the water continued to leak.”
The medical cases were treated by MSF on board. The British Navy vessel arrived and the coordination centre in Rome decide to hand them the lead for this rescue operation. At this time SOS had been rescuing for several hours and almost 200 people were aboard the Aquarius.
“It was decided to separate the two wooden boats. We took the people from the white boat onto the Aquarius and the navy vessel took the people from the blue wooden boat. But we had already some of the children, women and men from the blue boat aboard the Aquarius.”
The teams of SOS continue rescue for hours, bringing people to the Aquarius shuttle by shuttle, whilst also supporting the navy vessel with shuttles.
“And then suddenly another small wooden boat was spotted, a third one. It was small. But all of a sudden we had to take care of this third boat now. And again, it was a serious situation as the small wooden boat was overcrowded and starting to fill with water. We had to react very quickly as it looked ready to capsize at any moment,” said Yohann.
All 40 people from this wooden boat could be rescued. The entire rescue operation of three different boats lasted more than 12 hours. It was only in the late afternoon that all persons were save aboard of the Aquarius or the navy vessel.
We are now on our way to Sicily facing extremely bad weather. The forecast says that in a few hours it will be even worse and currently we already have waves of up to 4 meters and strong winds. A lot of our guests are seasick and you can hear the typical sound of it all over the Aquarius. The teams of MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE have a lot to do, to take care of the sick and to support the others with water and food, blankets and medicine.
The Aquarius was able to disembark all rescued Friday morning in a harbour in Sicily.
Text: René Schulthoff