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New maritime rescue failure leaves unanswered questions

  • 20 May 2013

On Friday, Fairfax Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard reported on another ordeal at sea, over ten days between 27 April and 7 May. The story as we know it so far raises disturbing questions about Australia's adherence to its rescue-at-sea obligations.

On 27 April, a boat left from an unknown location in Indonesia carrying 48 Iranian asylum seekers. They included 12 women and five children aged under six bound for Christmas Island.

Thirty hours out, the engine and pumps failed. Then they drifted for nine days, bailing by hand as the boat filled with water. On the third day, the (Indonesian) crew abandoned ship, swimming to other fishing boats nearby.

The passengers were left to drift for seven more days. Their food and water ran out. They suffered from sunburn, vomiting, and low glucose. It is a miracle that none died.

By the eighth day — 5 May — they were so desperate that two male passengers Sajad and Meisam set out for help in a makeshift raft. These men are presumed drowned.

Finally, on the tenth day at sea — 7 May — the passengers saw a surveillance aircraft overhead. Just three hours later they were rescued by an Indonesia-bound cargo ship, MV Aeolos. Their condition was described by their rescuers as tired, weak, dizzy and distressed.

They are now in detention in Merak. Bachelard met and interviewed them there. He also spoke with Dan Posadas, the chief officer of MV Aeolos.

Bachelard was advised by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA, which manages Rescue Coordination Centre Australia) that:

At approximately 6:15pm on Tuesday 7 May, RCC Australia received notification via Border Protection Command that a surveillance aircraft had detected a vessel that was stationary in the water 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

RCC Australia issued a broadcast to shipping for vessels in the area to provide assistance. MV Aeolos was the closest available asset to respond to the distress broadcast. MV Aeolos responded to the RCC Australia's broadcast and proceeded to the vessel's location, arriving at 9:30 pm that day.

At approximately 2:00am on Wednesday 8 May, the master of the MV Aeolos reported to RCC Australia that all 47 people had been recovered from their vessel, which had been listing and was taking on water. The rescue occurred 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

AMSA advised Bachelard that this information had been sourced from both AMSA and the Department of Customs and Border