Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Island,boat disaster: 28 dead

Between 70 and 100 asylum seekers on boat
Two women flown to Perth in serious condition
Many couldn't swim to reach lifejackets
Minister believes boat wasn't tracked
Asylum policy slammed
The death toll from yesterday's Christmas Island tragedy has risen to 28 this morning, with the federal government conceding up to 100 asylum seekers might have been aboard the ill-fated vessel.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen's office confirmed the new toll today as questions mount about how the boat managed to get so far, and into so much trouble, without being intercepted.

Asylum-seeker boat crashes off Christmas Island

Twenty-seven people had been confirmed dead last night after the boat smashed against rocks off the island.

Mr Bowen told radio station 3MTR today that 44 Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers had survived the crash, which occurred about 6am in Flying Fish Cove.

Of the survivors, 11 said they were younger than 18, Mr Bowen told Sky News this morning.
Mr Bowen said initial reports suggested between 70 and 100 asylum seekers were on the vessel, but that figure had not been verified.

"It's too early to say. We're obviously talking to some of the asylum seekers, and that will continue to happen," he said.

"People who have survived say there were between 70 and 100," he told 3MTR.

"But we really don’t know and we probably never will," Mr Bowen said, adding weather conditions in the area were extremely dangerous.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has cancelled holidays as her government braced for the high death toll.

The dead include women and children.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor confirmed the search for survivors would continue today.

"The search will continue at first light. We’ll have to continue the search before we can determine precisely the number [on board].

"It’s clearly a tragic situation for the victims, the victims' families and the people of Christmas Island," he said.

Urgent treatment

A temporary mortuary has been established on the island.

Six survivors have been taken to hospital, while the others have been taken to the Christmas Island detention centre, Mr O’Connor said.

The Perth Royal Flying Doctor Service flew two women to Royal Perth Hospital in a serious but stable condition for urgent treatment.

"We brought the most serious two patients back," Dr David McIlroy told ABC Radio. "One lady with abdominal injuries, one lady with lung injuries probably from inhaling sea water and a bit of diesel."

Royal Flying Doctor Service medical director Stephen Langford said some of the survivors at Christmas Island could require extra medical care in Perth.

"They [Christmas Island] don’t have a surgical capacity," he told ABC Television, noting that "half a dozen" patients had "minor traumatic" injuries.

"There are ones that may need some tertiary level care," he said, adding they could be sent to Perth on a routine flight. "Or they may be treated on the island."

Additional federal and West Australian police are due to arrive on the island by plane. A disaster victim identification unit is also en route.

"There will also be people authorised to inquire on behalf of the West Australian coroner, so that will commence quite quickly as well," Mr O’Connor said.

'There was nothing we could do'

Traumatised residents watched the tragedy unfold from Christmas Island's lethal limestone cliffs. Their efforts to rescue children drowning below them were thwarted by roaring winds that threw back lifevests.

''I saw a person dying in front of me and there was nothing we could do to save them,'' said a Christmas Island councillor, Kamar Ismail.

''Babies, children, maybe three or four years old, they were hanging on to bits of timber, they were screaming 'help, help, help'. We were throwing lifejackets out to them but many of them couldn't swim a few metres to reach them.''

Mick Tassone watched the boat hit the rocks and saw people dashed against the cliffs. ''There was a lot of screaming. It was very rough out there,'' he said. ''They had no chance.''

Wooden boat appeared close to shore

The Prime Minister said: ''This has been a tragic event, and it will be some time before there is a full picture of what has happened. The government's focus and absolute priority now is on rescue, recovery and treatment of those injured.''

The opposition and the government put aside the bitter politics of an election fought over boat arrivals, saying it was not the time to debate policy.

Customs and Border Protection refused to answer questions about whether HMAS Perie had been tracking the boat for at least two days before its engine failed early yesterday.

"My understanding is that it wasn’t tracked, but this is early days," Mr Bowen said.

In a statement the department said the vessel had been sighted north-east of Flying Fish Cove in the morning and foundered in severe conditions.

Residents said the naval vessel was sitting on the horizon when the wooden boat appeared close to shore at Rocky Point about 5am, and the heavy swell and rain may have initially obscured it from view. Naval tenders then raced towards the stricken boat.

Customs said the rescue was conducted ''in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions''. HMAS Pirie and ACV Triton offered immediate help and lifejackets were thrown to people in the water, Customs said.

Asylum policy slammed

Refugee advocates said the tragedy highlighted the dangers of the country's asylum policy. ''The Australian government are to blame,'' said Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition.

''They should be processing people in Indonesia. They should be dropping the anti-people-smuggling laws so that people feel they can safely contact Australian authorities without any recriminations.''

Mr Bowen said the accident would not change the government’s border security policy.

"We need to break the people-smuggling business model, absolutely we do," he said. "To do so we need international cooperation and that’s what we’re working very hard on to do."

A documentary maker, Philip Stewart, watched seven people clinging desperately to part of the hull. He said one swam to a rescue boat and safety.

''The other six couldn't get off and each one of them was eventually knocked off and just disappeared.''

From the cliffs, residents threw a rope which snapped, but could not launch rescue boats because of the dangerous swell.

The opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said the tragedy was ''the realisation of our worst fears'' and would haunt the people of Christmas Island.

A source at Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency said Australian authorities had not alerted them about the departure from Indonesia of the vessel.

Australia, with its superior radar, satellites and intelligence, frequently shares information with Indonesia about suspected people-smuggling boats in its waters.

But the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said such an alert had only been issued once in the past week, for a smaller vessel that departed Padang in Sumatra on Tuesday.

An information line has been set up for people who may have known someone on board the boat which crashed on rocks at Christmas Island.The Department of Immigration and Citizenship line is 1300 724 010.


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