[Statement] Ocean Viking’s SAR Coordinator on the rescue of 112 people from a deflating rubber boat

Nicola Stalla, Search and Rescue Coordinator onboard the Ocean Viking, comments on the 20th of December rescue. 112 people were brought to safety in what proved to be a difficult operation.

“In the very early morning, in complete darkness at first, a challenging rescue operation was conducted by the Ocean Viking about 35 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. After being alerted of a boat in distress, our vessel headed full speed towards it in order to investigate. About an hour and a half later, we eventually spotted a white rubber boat. It was severely overcrowded and had the bow section completely deflated.

The Ocean Viking immediately tried to get in contact with the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) in order to inform them of the urgent situation and to seek guidance. Even though they had also received the same distress alert, they did not dispatch the information to all vessels in the area as per maritime conventions. Furthermore, out of our eight calls to the Libyan JRCC, seven were unanswered. Only one was answered, but with no English speakers with whom to coordinate the urgent need of rescue.

As per maritime law, the Ocean Viking informed the Libyan JRCC via email, with the Maltese and Italian MRCCs in copy as well as EUNAVFORMED, and proceeded to perform the rescue.

It was not an easy task for SOS MEDITERRANEE’s SAR team. It started in complete darkness and we had to prepare in case the overcrowded and partially deflated rubber boat was to deteriorate further. We therefore deployed two rafts and used one of them to offload part of the people from the boat in distress. The other raft was ready, on scene, in case of critical turns of events.

The teams operating the rescue could hear babies crying and most of the people were very agitated at first. Fortunately, the rescuers managed to calm them down, no one fell in the water and all distressed people have been brought safely onboard the Ocean Viking.

Our vessel now has 112 survivors onboard. Among them 24 are women, including 3 pregnant and 7 babies. The youngest is just 3 months old. 27% of the rescued people are unaccompanied minors. According to the first testimonies we could gather, the boat had left Zawiyah, Libya, in the late evening of yesterday.

The weather conditions, that were quite calm this morning, have then rapidly deteriorated. Would we have not been present in the area and able to locate the boat in distress, all these men, women and children could have faced horrific weather conditions, leading to a most certain shipwreck.

Once again, it is unacceptable that we could not rely on an effective rescue coordination center to guide us during this lifesaving operation. The lack of coordination in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region has been ongoing for a year and a half now; since the responsibility for coordinating rescues in this part of the sea was assigned to the Libyan maritime authorities. A solution must be found urgently to restore proper Search and Rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean and a stable and systematic mechanism of disembarkation of the survivors must be implemented.

We requested a Place of Safety to the Libyan JRCC, with Maltese and Italian MRCCs in copy as well as our flag state for their information, at 2pm this afternoon. As per maritime law, we need to disembark the rescued people as soon as possible“.