© Giorgos Moutafis/SOS MEDITERRANEE
“MSF team meeting. Now,” the voice commands over the radio.
The numbers: seven hundred people. Two wooden boats spotted, but two separate distress calls.
The wooden boats seem to be sinking, but there is another call, from a rubber raft, in another location. Those at the control centre play the numbers like bookies. 700 who could be dead in an instant when those rickety wooden boats capsize, as they have a propensity to do. Probably upwards of 120 people in the rubber boat – they could be safe or they could be sinking.
We are closer to the rubber boat but we are the only ship in the area with the capacity to retrieve 700 people.
We are ordered to the wooden boats. Another boat should, (will, hopefully, please), be dispatched to the rubber boat. But we don’t know that for sure.
We could be bypassing 120 potentially salvageable people to arrive at a mass graveyard, only to be redispatched to the rubber boat to find they have also drowned. Or we could get there in time.
A distress call is a rumour at best. A request from another smaller humanitarian boat for assistance, as we have received from the scene of the wooden boats, is close to a confirmation, but things can change in the hour it will take us to arrive there.
We prepare for a mass casualty situation. I know where the resuscitation bays will be set-up, but I also know, more realistically, the location of the body bags.
My heart pounds and my hands gently shake as we steam towards the unknown.
“We won’t know until we get there and even then things can change in seconds.”
The team who carry out the search and rescue activities in the water reviews how to meticulously pluck people off a wooden boat without precipitating a capsize.
I mentally urge the engines: faster.
I urge the head wind: softer.
I brace my heart and steady my mind. One hour. The fate of hundreds of people. Will we be in time?