Log entry

Two simultaneous rescue operations saved 252 humans

In the shelter for women on the AQUARIUS, our Search and Rescue team member Edouard from France is taking care of 2 month old Leyla. She is our youngest guest on board, following this challenging Sunday on the Mediterranean. Edouard holds the tiny baby in his strong arms to lull her to sleep, while her mother is undergoing medical examination by the Medécins Sans Frontièr Doctor Sarah. It seems Edouard is enjoying this moment of calmness after an almost 6 hours long rescue operation.

We were expecting that this Sunday would be a busy Sunday. The weather conditions were bad during the past 4 days; the wind was onshore from the North and the AQUARIUS was sailing from West to East to West… 25 miles in front of the Libyan coast without any emergency. But we knew the weather would change during the night of Saturday to Sunday.

“Rubber boat East” it sounds out of the speaker on the bridge of the AQUARIUS – it is around 7 o´clock on Sunday morning. Yohann the Search and Rescue coordinator on the AQUARIUS is staring to sea through his binoculars. “And there is another one” he says.

Two rubber boats with people in distress, at two different locations several miles apart. We have to decide where to start the first rescue operation. As we cannot see the second rubber boat clearly, we decide to start the rescue of the closest rubber boat. It is overcrowded and people are nervous.

“Please stay calm” Asma is shouting through her megaphone. She is on the rescue boat that first approaches the rubber boat. Her job is to facilitate and talk to the people in distress. “We will rescue all of you, please stay where you are, stay seated, do not move. You will all be rescued and transferred to this big ship there behind me.” Amsa is working for our partner on board the AQUARIUS, Medécins Sans Frontièrs / Doctors without borders. She speaks English, French and Arabic and can communicate with almost everybody on these rubber boats.

After delivering life wests to the 40 women and 10 children as well as the around 70 men on board this rubber boat, we start the first transfer of women and children to the AQUARIUS. We are lucky. The wind has weakened and the sea is quite calm, only few low waves.

The second rubber boat is still far away. From the distance it looks as it is quite deep in the water. This could mean different things – in the worst case that water is coming in and the boat is sinking. Again we have to decide quickly. One of our rescue boats will stay with the first rubber boat and the second one, loaded with life vests will speed to the second one.

At this time our team is taking care of two rubber boats at two different locations, trying to save the lives of probably two to three hundred people. “The situation at the second rubber boat is calm. This boat is completely overcrowded, no life vests, two women on board, no children” says Ani, our Spanish deputy team leader via her handheld radio. This is good news but we have to hurry as the clouds in the sky do not promise nice weather much longer.

The two rubber boats are still several miles apart. 40 people have already been evacuated from the first rubber. We decide to try to start the engine of rubber boat one. As no one inside the boat knows how to start this engine, our SAR colleague Baptiste decides to enter the rubber boat, “It was quite easy, the engine almost immediately started. I only had to change one barrel of gasoline as it was filled half with water. When I attached the new 20 litres canister the engine immediately started.”

At the same time, it is the premiere for our youngest colleague of the search and rescue team – Mary. She was driving the rescue boat while Baptiste is navigating the rubber boat full with migrants. A job well done, as May has previous experience in driving boats.

Accompanied by our rescue boat, the rubber boat slowly drives in the direction of the second rubber boat and finally we have both rubber boats in one location. The rescue operation took more than 5 hours this Sunday. In total we rescued 252 people, among them some very young children – the youngest is only 8 weeks old. There are also 5 pregnant women on board.

They later on tell us that they had been hiding on the Libyan beach for 4 to 5 days, all the time taking cover in pits and holes in the sand. Most of the rescued still have sand all over. The sand is everywhere, in their hair and on their skin.

Leyla, our youngest guest, finally falls asleep in the arms of Edouard. Her mother is happy to see her young child with a smile on her soft cute face in the arms of our search and rescue colleague. At this moment the wind outside is picking up, waves are getting higher and everybody on board the AQUARIUS is relieved that the whole rescue operation of 252 people ended right on time and that all are safe on board the AQUARIUS.

Text by: René Schulthoff

Photo Credits: Marco Panzetti / SOS MEDITERRANEE