Drama at Easter: From the logbook of Sea-Eye skipper Thomas Nuding

Skipper from Mission 3: Thomas Nuding. Foto: Friedhold Ulonska

On the Saturday before Easter, in the morning, we received a radio message about the position of a wooden boat from the Phoenix (aid organisation MOAS ship) and the Iuventa (Jugend rettet ship), which were already involved in a rescue operation. The wooden boat held 25 men, whom we recovered without complications with our dinghy Charlotti, after a request from the MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) in Rome. We took them on board, onto the Sea-Eye’s afterdeck.

On our way to the operations location of the Phoenix (the ship was surrounded by four rubber boats and a wooden boat, with an estimated total of 1,000 people), the Iuventa informed us about a wooden boat in distress. We headed towards the position and supported the recovery of the wooden boat with 200 life vests. Immediately afterwards we started looking for another rubber boat, whose position we had received from the search plane Moonbird  (Sea Watch).

During the search, at about 08:30 we received an emergency call that people were jumping from a wooden boat with about 500 passengers and were in the water.

The Sea-Eye and our dinghy rushed there at maximum speed. On the spot, a horrible situation awaited the dinghy crew. Countless people in the water and strong tension on a rolling wooden boat  (about 15 metres long and 2.5 metres high), from which people kept jumping into the water. The screams of people in the water and the chaos on the wooden boat were audible on the Sea-Eye, which was at a distance of half a nautical mile.

The Iuventa crew mobilised all floatable materials like life rafts, centre floats and life vests. One of the already empty rubber boats was turned into temporary storage for the life vests of the Iuventa and the Sea-Eye. From there the people in the water were provided with life vests. People with life vests were taken on board the Sea-Eye via rope ladders. The deck of the wooden boat was hopelessly overcrowded. According to those who had been rescued, the boat had three levels, i.e. we had to assume that several hundred people were still on the boat, and in the worst case including dead bodies.

In order to prevent the capsizing of the wooden boat, the Charlotti and the Iuventa Rescue tried to recover people directly from the wooden boat. The attempt to first rescue women and children failed because the ensuing panic caused countless people to jump from the 2.5-metre-height of their deck onto our boats. Many landed in the water and were thrashing in a panic. We managed to rescue several dozen people through shuttle trips with the boat, including a one-year-old boy and his father. But the fact that a dinghy approached the wooden boat meant that even more people jumped into the water in the hope of getting rescued by us.

Horrible scenes ensued because people were swimming next to our dinghies, screaming loudly, while we were trying to get women and small children to jump into our dinghies. We could not take on everyone in the water. We threw life vests to the swimmers and told them to swim to the different life rafts, the Sea-Eye or the Iuventa.

This situation continued for several hours. The deck of the wooden boat did not seem to become emptier, because after each transfer ever more people came on deck from the lower levels. Contrary to first expextations, we managed to recover and rescue all, while 200 people remained on the wooden boat for the time being.

Around 14:20, the German navy ship Rhein reached the spot. This ship had already evacuated people from rubber boats before.

The Rhein put two dinghies to water, which recovered the remaining people on the wooden boat. Afterwards all four rescue dinghies cooperated in the transport of the rescued, first from the life rafts of the Iuventa, then from the Iuventa itself and then from the Sea-Eye and its life raft.

During this day, until the end of the transfer at 00:30 the next day, altogether 286 people had been on board the Sea-Eye. At the end of the sea rescue activities, about 900 people had been rescued during this particular emergency.

Immediately after the end of the rescue operation, at about 00:30, the Sea-Eye had to head towards another incident.

The emergency with the large wooden boat and about nine rubber boats was at a distance of about six nautical miles. This situation, which had already started in the morning, grew during the day to about 1,700 people in distress during the day.

At about 01:45, we reached the spot and found four larger rescue ships, the Iuventa with over 250 people, the Phoenix with about 500 people, the PPC Panther (civilian oil platform provider) with about 800 people and the Rhingio  (small harbour trailer) with about 40 people on board.

In addition, there were people on at least five other rubber boats, only some of whom had already been provided with life vests. One of the rubber boats was evacuated entirely onto the Sea-Eye; 75 people, including a man with a large and infected bullet wound on his left ankle joint. He said that his friend had been shot and killed in Libya, while he had been shot and wounded.

The rescue operation ended at 05:00 in the morning.

At 07:00, another oil platform provider was supposed to arrive in order to take on the remaining people. However, this ship arrived late because it had to rescue 600 people on its way.

The search plane Moonbird signalled a sinking rubber boat at 09:20. The Sea-Eye immediately headed to the indicated position. Three RIBs were already starting to rescue drowning people, but their capacities were quickly exhausted. Once we had arrived, we took the people from the three rubber boats immediately on board, because more people were still drifting in the water. Most were exhausted and affected by hypothermia; some were no longer able to manage the transfer from the dinghies to the Sea-Eye themselves.

After the rubber boat was empty, we had to realise that during the panic at least four people had died in the water that had streamed into the rubber boat. Further dead bodies were floating in the water next to the Sea-Eye. Several dead bodies without life vests sank very quickly.

Altogether eight to ten drifting dead bodies were sighted during the rescue operation. A further four people disappeared into the sea. During the rescue, a pregnant woman, about 20-25 years old, was taken on board in very poor condition. Within a few minutes, we had to start a reanimation, but sadly the woman died on board the Sea-Eye.

At least four pregnant women were on board. Since they are usually placed in the middle of the refugee boat, they have extensive burns on their legs, bottoms and bellies, caused by the mix of salt water, petrol and urine in the boat. One of the women who was treated for injuries said that her husband had also been taken on board the Sea-Eye, but that her eight-year-old son had drowned when their boat sank.

During the care for the injured, the Sea-Eye returned to the Iuventa, Phoenix and Rhingio. On our way we saw a freight ship, the Tuna1. We requested that they support the rescue operations and take people on board. We agreed with the MRCC and the on-scene coordinator of the Phoenix that following the rescue of the three rubber boats and the wooden boat, the evacuation of the people on the Rhingio and the Sea-Eye to the Tuna1 should take place.

At about 14:30, the wind increased from one to five Beaufort and the waves from 0.3 to two metres.

This caused the Phoenix to postpone the agreed shuttle of the people on board the Sea-Eye onto the Tuna1. In spite of our urgent warning that according to the German Weather Service, the weather conditions would be even worse the next day. The Tuna1 used the opportunity to declare itself full after the transfer of 475 people.

At that point  (around 18:45), there were still about 200-220 people on board the Sea-Eye, most of whom were affected by hypothermia and many injured. In spite of our intensive efforts, we did not manage to convince the MRCC and the Phoenix that a fast transfer was needed, until past midnight. At 03:00, the MRCC informed us that we should head to another meeting point, which we reached at dawn. At the agreed meeting point the Phoenix, an Italian coast guard ship and the Sea-Eye met.

At 08:00, the Phoenix again postponed the transfer of the refugees to an unspecified time. The MRCC suggested at 08:30 to move in a convoy towards the Tunisian coast or, alternatively, head towards a Tunisian port (Zarzis).

On Easter Monday at 08:53, due to the worsening condition of the refugees on board, we sent a Mayday call. The Luxemburgeois patrol plane LUX SW3 Merlin III transferred our Mayday call to the MRCC. Immediately afterwards, the Italian coast guard ship, which had been leaving, turned and had to return to the Sea-Eye.

Together we tried different course options, but the MRCC-supplied course towards the West meant extreme rolling of the Sea-Eye. Given the condition of the migrants, we did not consider the position of the ship safe. Therefore we proposed a northward course. The Italian coast guard ship accompanied us.

Half an hour before the planned transfer, we suddenly had a medical emergency. A pregnant 18-year-old woman in the eighth month of pregnancy. The patient had been seasick since the previous day and had fainted from vomiting and dehydration. During the treatment in the Sea-Eye’s medical station  (3×2 metres), 15 people were standing crowded together, most of them injured and pregnant women. Due to the medical treatment, the transfer was postponed to 18:00. By that time the patient was conscious again and could feel the baby’s movements. The transfer operation ended at 21:30 with the handing back of the life vests to the Sea-Eye.

The entire operation took about 86 hours, during which each crew member slept about seven hours. During the rescue operations on 15 and 16 April, the Sea-Eye rescued 25, plus 750, plus 75, plus 120, i.e. a total of 970 people from certain death by drowning.

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