August 5th and 6th, 2015

In the early afternoon of Wednesday August 5th an overloaded boat capsized in the southern Mediterranean. The MSF ship Dignity 1 arrived just twenty minutes later to assist, a helicopter dropped life rafts, and every effort was made by everybody involved to save every human life possible. By day’s end 399 people were rescued, 25 bodies were recovered, and up to 200 people were presumed to have drowned.

The Phoenix was about five hours away when we received the news, and instructions to proceed directly to the site. All was calm and the day was ending when we arrived. The helicopter stopped searching and returned to its Italian Navy mother-ship. We watched for bodies as the light faded. Then the sun also sank into the sea, and there was nothing more for us to do but gather on the foredeck for some respectful words and a minute of silence.

The next day tragedy threatened to strike again. At about 1 p.m. on August 6th the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre requested the Phoenix to urgently assist in the rescue of a 15-meter boat carrying 604 people and in danger of capsizing, less than an hour away. An Italian Navy vessel and the MSF ship Bourbon Argos were also nearby and involved.

Due to the large number of people and the dire state of the boat, as we neared the scene both of the Phoenix’s RHIBs (rigid hull inflatable boats) were launched to speed ahead. They were loaded with large bags of lifejackets as usual, but on this occasion each also towed a 25-meter CentiFloat capable of supporting at least 100 persons in the water.

The second RHIB with MOAS/MSF crew receives a CentiFloat just before heading to the scene.

One of the Phoenix RHIBs tows a 25-meter CentiFloat at high speed to the rescue site.

Unlike every other wooden boat we’d rescued this year, the old fishing boat still had a cabin and was therefore extremely top-heavy with people crowded onto every flat surface. She hung suspended for eternal seconds at the end of each sickening roll, before only grudgingly returning upright. I held my breath several times watching the port side rail drop to within a foot of the water, and mentally prepared for the worst. Some of the people in distress dove or jumped into the water, to cling onto lifejackets or the CentiFloats.

The captain of the chartered MSF ship Bourbon Argos deftly positioned it close by, so as to block the light wind and swell from further endangering the migrant boat. The Argos is an anchor-handling and rig-supply vessel which can pivot and move sideways, crab-like, due to its bow and stern thrusters. The immediate priorities, though, were to get life-jackets onto as many as possible and to lighten the top-load to minimize the chance of the migrant boat capsizing. Many would surely have perished in that event, trapped below deck or inside the cabin, injured, or otherwise unable to swim.

The MSF boat Bourbon Argos positioned to block waves and wind.

Some lifejackets have been distributed. Unloading is underway. The old fishing boat begins a roll to starboard as a person dives from the bow.

The crews on the RHIBs rapidly distributed lifejackets and began ferrying people to the Phoenix and the Argos, quickly unloading and speeding back for more. First came babies, children, and a few women. The children’s parents followed as the flow of people continued, to everyone’s relief. The infants were hand-carried by us but some wobbly rescued adults immediately sprawled onto the deck, seasick and traumatized but undoubtedly relieved.

Finally the last people were safely aboard the Phoenix and the Argos. Much later that evening all the rescued were transferred to a large European border patrol vessel, the Siem Pilot, for the trip to Italy. As the Phoenix returned to position we reorganized our gear, repacked lifejackets, and cleared the decks in preparation for the next round, before turning in.

These few pictures and words address only a few moments of 1,003 life-stories mercifully still in progress. From my work on the Phoenix this year, I know that these people are fleeing a litany of intolerable conditions such as Ebola-destroyed economies and lives, forced conscription in Eritrea, inhumane virtual slavery in Libya, systematic religious persecution, random violence and the breakdown of civil order in many areas, and outright war in Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen. They include nurses, mechanics, accountants, electricians, truck drivers, businessmen, hairdressers, students, and welders. They are aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, children, and babies. For better or worse, they are just like us and our family members.

Sadly, August 5th marked the end of far too many lives in the southern Mediterranean. They are unlikely to be the last to pass that way, as over 2,000 already have this year. This wasn’t a natural disaster. Restrictive policies, desperation, and unscrupulous people made it happen. Only people can prevent its repetition.

As long as there are overcrowded and unseaworthy boats packed with human lives, adequate search and rescue capability in the Mediterranean is obviously and morally imperative. But search and rescue is not a sufficient intervention for this historic problem. There has to be some better way, some safe passage to some safe place, some coordinated, effective, and humane international response. It is not too much to ask, and expect. (Please write to your elected representatives, make a donation, open a conversation, and stay informed.)

What has been said must never be allowed to happen again, is happening now.