Fieldset
"All stations, ready for rescue": My solemn oath to people seeking safety

It's a cold January evening and the Ocean Viking crew are preparing for a rescue in the Mediterranean – their fourth in a row with no rest. Writing in vivid detail, communications specialist Hannah takes us onboard for a dramatic night at sea.

A baby sleeps on board the Ocean Viking

The weather? Unseasonably calm. Conflict in Libya is escalating. With only one other rescue boat in the area, in the early hours of 24 January, it began. Over the course of that winter weekend, emergency teams onboard the Ocean Viking would rescue 407 people in five separate night-time operations in less than 72 hours. 

“All stations, all stations, all stations: get ready for rescue, repeat, get ready for rescue.” 

The call is repeated across the network of personal UHF radios we each carry onboard.

It echoes through the cabins and corridors as a team of restlessly slumbering emergency crew stir into action.  

This is the place where instinct and training take over and seconds count.  

Pulling on our personal safety gear, dishevelled unease is countered with a veneer of professional anticipation.

I catch the eye of my roommate. The look we share is fleeting but unmistakable: “prepare for the worst”, it says.

I recognise myself in her expression. Because there is something particular about doing a rescue at night.  

Night-time

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that the stakes seem higher in the dark. 

Practically, as human beings, we simply cannot see as well and impaired visibility making the operation more challenging, logistically.

More fundamental though, is an innate childhood sense that bad things happen at night.

Fiction rarely unfolds a horror story under a blazing midday sun.  

Europe's borderlands

I hasten up the stairs to join the ongoing search, stepping into the muffled silence characteristic of the bridge after midnight. 

Pupils dilate and epidermis stains the colour of emergency: everything here in the control centre of the ship is tinged scarlet from the red lights we use to give our eyes the best chance of adjusting to nocturnal gloom. 

Those on active watch have their eyes trained on the horizon, scouring obscurity for a clue to those lost on the water.

Every so often, the flare from a nearby oil platform frames the dystopic reality that has become Europe’s borderlands.  

Then, perhaps all it takes is the smudge on the radar. Or a glow of a mobile phone illuminating the suggestion of a faraway face.

And then we know we have a target. Time to launch. 

Rescue mode

Adrenaline spikes under artificial glow, cranes lifting rescue boats from their davits and lowering them onto the shifting surface of the sea.

Climbing down the ladder, careful as the swell threatens to steal the sponson from beneath me, I step down and to resume my position. 

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the sound of the wind whistling through the mast of the Ocean Viking and the sound of a baby wailing.

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Ocean Viking crews conduct a night rescue in the Central Mediterranean
Ocean Viking crews conduct a night rescue in the Central Mediterranean

But as a cry becomes discernible from the silence, “rescue” shifts from theory to imperative.  

This is the place where instinct and training take over and seconds count.  

A medical emergency

On that last rotation, the team was running on empty by the time we approached the scene of a precariously overcrowded rubber boat: our fourth operation in a row and our third day without rest.

We were all physically and emotionally exhausted, yet it always amazes me how resilient the body can be when sleep is no longer an option. 

Policies of exclusion have turned the Central Mediterranean into a gruesome theatre of chance.

At 84 nautical miles from the coast of Libya, the 102 people on board had already been at sea for over 22 hours.

The stench of gasoline was overwhelming even as we approached and it was quickly apparent they were intoxicated by fumes.

As our search and rescue partner, SOS MEDITERRANEE, gradually transferred the survivors from their dilapidated craft to Ocean Viking, on board the mother ship the severity of the medical situation became increasingly apparent. 

The girl

It seemed that the gas used to power the outboard engines had mixed with salt water to create a toxic mix at the bottom of their boat and the women and children who had been sitting on the floor in the middle were suffering significant severe fuel burns.

This is where the gasoline permeates the skin and lifts it from the tissue beneath, rendering the flesh gaping and raw.

The MSF medics were now working quickly to sterilise and dress wounds, administering relief for the pain as more and more patients were identified. 

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MSF staff speak with survivors on board the Ocean Viking
MSF staff speak with survivors on board the Ocean Viking

Amidst this unfolding and urgent organisation of chaos, I noticed a little girl.

Wrapped in a foil emergency blanket, she stood still and statuesque, as if the subject of some macabre high-fashion shoot; the unwavering foreground to a dynamic tableau of humanitarian response.

Calmly staring, gently shivering, she seemed to hold time around her. I later learned she was just four-years-old. 

“You are going to be OK” 

Her gaze went past the lens of my camera, exposing its irrelevance and causing me to abandon my attempt to capture this moment.

Instead, I knelt down to meet her. 

“You are OK,” I tell her. “You are going to be OK.” 

She smiles at me.  

“OK,” she says. Then smiles back, just a little bit.  

At best my words are platitude. At worst, a lie. 

For how can what I say be true?  

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Survivors on board the Ocean Viking warm up with emergency foil blankets
Survivors on board the Ocean Viking warm up with emergency foil blankets

Human collateral

Her situation is a testament to the lengths people have to go to in their bid to seek safety: human collateral made manifest by the collective fear of a continent.

She will likely never know the shame I feel to be part of society that brought us to this moment where we would meet, her mother crouched behind her in the shower, where the fuel from a journey she is lucky to survive is doused from her naked body. 

Policies of exclusion have turned the Central Mediterranean into a gruesome theatre of chance.

Where human lives are left to dangle as the puppets in a war of populism, disappearing beneath the waves less than 100 miles from European shores.  

And until that changes, on board Ocean Viking, here we remain: “All stations, all stations, ready for rescue”.  

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