by Rosemarie North, IFRC
The call came before dawn: a seriously overloaded rubber boat was detected in darkness in the southern Mediterranean Ocean.
The Responder, a search and rescue ship, sailed to investigate. On board was a team from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and search and rescue experts from MOAS, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station.
A search light illuminated more than 100 people perched on the edges of the dinghy, each with a foot in the waves. More people huddled in the well of the death trap.
MOAS rescuers started to toss life jackets to the passengers. There was a toxic smell. High octane fuel leaking from the boat’s engine and mixing with sea water was being inhaled by the passengers, some of whom fainted.
People on board the rubber boat began to panic. One held up a tiny baby, perhaps hoping to draw attention to the boat’s plight. In the panic, many tumbled or jumped into the water, although they could not swim.
MOAS rescue swimmers plunged into the sea to save as many as they could. In the end, there were 134 survivors, including 99 men, 29 women and 6 children — including two six-month-old twins and an eight-month-old baby. Tragically, seven people lost their lives. Their bodies are now in the morgue of the Responder.
The Red Cross team, which includes a doctor and two nurses, carried out medical checks, gave first aid and arranged the medical evacuation of two men with severe injuries from the fuel. A third passenger was reunited with his wife on another ship.
Red Cross team coordinator Eugenio Venturo said, “The early morning rescue was hugely challenging for us. It was a mass casualty event, with 134 people suddenly arriving. We had to be fast and careful at checking their health. We didn’t want to miss anything.”
The team also checked the health of MOAS crew members who had also been exposed to the toxic fumes.
Shortly after this dramatic rescue, the Responder was told of two other rubber boats in distress. The team was able to rescue all 22 and 27 people on these boats. Later, the ship received 171 people transferred from other rescue ships. The Responder is now sailing to Italy to bring the total of 351 passengers, who are from Africa and South Asia, to dry land.
Most passengers are simply relieved to be alive.
“My youngest baby is three months old. I’ve never seen him. But I gave him my name because maybe I won’t survive,” said Jamal Agboola-Muideen, 39.
“Going from Nigeria to Europe isn’t easy, through the land and through the sea. We lost a lot of people from the boat. I could have been among them.”
Jamal Agboola-Muideen is the breadwinner for his extended family and says he was forced to flee after his parents died when he received death threats from relatives wanting their land.
It has been a busy few days since the Responder set sail from Malta on 2 September. On 4 September it rescued 119 people from a rubber boat and transferred them to the Italian Coastguard, which is coordinating the search and rescue effort.
Favourable weather conditions in the past week have led to a surge of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean, in search of safety in Europe.
The Responder works with a smaller sister ship, the Phoenix, to patrol and conduct rescue missions along the route between North Africa and Italy where the majority of the estimated 3,100 drownings this year have occurred.
On the Responder, Red Cross aid workers from Italy, Switzerland and New Zealand provide post-rescue assistance including first aid, medical care, food, water, dry clothes and blankets. On the Phoenix, post-rescue care is carried out by Italian Red Cross volunteers and staff.
As these dangerous sea crossings mount, IFRC calls on world leaders to end the indifference to needless drownings and take action to protect human dignity and save lives.
The rescue missions of the Responder and Phoenix are a partnership between the Italian Red Cross -with support from IFRC — and MOAS, an independent charity.