Diary of a sea rescue

(Photo: Yara Nardi / Italian Red Cross)

by Caroline Haga, IFRC communications delegate

In the last few days 7,500 people have been rescued while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea — including 6,500 in the last 24 hours. More than 3,100 have died this year trying to make the journey in lethal rubber boats run by unscrupulous gangs of smugglers.

The Italian Red Cross, with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), is partnering with independent charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in a joint life-saving mission on board the Responder. I joined the first Red Cross medical team as we headed out to the Central Mediterranean this month.

Day 1: 05.00
We sit in the kitchen with bleary eyes and hope that coffee will kick in. The patrol is about to start. After a quick breakfast we head below deck to the infirmary to make the final preparations for patients.

Most boats leave the Libyan shore between midnight and 3am, which is why our watch starts early. The sea is choppy, which normally means fewer rubber boats on the water. At least we hope so. No-one should be at sea in this weather.

(Photo: Yara Nardi / Italian Red Cross)

Suddenly, the Responder’s alarm — people have attempted the dangerous crossing today and a rickety wooden boat comes into view. I’m struck by how tiny and vulnerable it looks, bobbing on the waves. We can make out the shapes of huddled passengers, packed on board and waving at us. We manage to get there before it capsizes and help all 28 people safely on-board.

(Photo: Yara Nardi / Italian Red Cross)

Almost straight away, the alarm sounds again. We quickly lower one of our two small ribbed boats — these are the ones that speed out to stabalize the vessels in trouble and transfer people back to the safety of the Responder. I jump inside, heart hammering in my chest. When we get there I am shocked — one side of the boat is quickly deflating and the engine has already been lost to the waves. Men, women, kids — 147 of them.

The MOAS crew — made up of experienced seamen and rescue swimmers — throw out life jackets. One of the rescuers plunges into the water and get right to the boat — he needs to be there to keep everyone calm as any sudden movements at this point can cause catastrophe.

People are pulled from the water and into the satellite boat, then they are taken to the Responder. We repeat this four times until everyone is safe — I don’t remember when I last felt so relieved.

(Photo: Yara Nardi / Italian Red Cross)

Everyone is sat quietly on the deck. Our medical team’s done the rounds and people are okay on the whole — one person severely dehydrated and another with worrying low blood pressure have been taken to the infirmary.

Just as we start handing out water, we find out 120 people have just been rescued in another part of the Med and will be transferred to our ship. Then we will take everyone to safety in Sicily.

There are 21 Syrians among that group — they survived a shipwreck this morning. Five people travelling with them died ,including two small children. They look shocked and exhausted as they get on the Responder, keeping their kids close.

The bodies of those that drowned this morning are also transferred to us — our ship is the only one in the area with a morgue on board.

It’s silent on the deck now.

(Photo: Yara Nardi / Italian Red Cross)

After a few hours the 30 kids we have with us start playing. Everywhere else, people are sleeping, talking or staring into space. We start handing out snacks and foil blankets. It doesn’t get too cold on the boat at night but we use these because they’re waterproof, should waves wash over the sides.

The children love these gold blankets too, they tie them like capes and pretend to be kings and queens. We show the women and children inside where they can sleep — it takes a while for the rustling of the foil stops but the youngsters eventually fall asleep.

Later on, we follow suit — our teams take turns through the night to keep watch and makes sure everyone is okay. Tomorrow is a big day for our passengers — they will arrive in Sicily and the next leg of their journey will begin.

(Photo: Yara Nardi / Italian Red Cross)
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