Fighting a watery death 

Petra Oeckler  (Mission 3): This is how I experienced the drama in the Mediterranean


Tripolis/ Ebensfeld. Easter Sunday in the Mediterranean, 18 nautical miles off the coast of Libya. The rescue ship Sea-Eye is running on emergency power after a smoldering fire and is heading towards its home port Valetta. Then the crew get an SOS call: “Mayday. Sinking rubber boat. One hour ahead.” Time is of the essence, hundreds of lives are at risk. The Sea-Eye team heave to, adjust their course and rush to help – a race against time is starting.

Volunteer crew member Petra Oeckler will never forget these events. Horrible images which have become engraved in her mind. Panicking cries for help, which echo in her memory. While she is talking, the “film” in her head is running and the events are suddenly present again. She falters. It upsets her very much.

When she applied in autumn last year for a mission with the NGO Sea-Eye in order to help refugees in the international waters off Tripolis, little did she know what she would be facing. Her husband Udo had once worked as a skipper on the ship and he told her a lot – and yet, that seemed quite removed and was just hearsay. As a special instruction school teacher she is only available during the holidays. She didn’t really expect that a mission would work out for her. But she was hoping it would. And finally it happened during the Easter holidays.

She spends nine days on board the Sea-Eye, a re-equipped fishing cutter. For the first three days the nine crew members wait impatiently in the Maltese harbour Valetta for the wind to abate. The wind is so strong that refugees from Libya cannot start their journey across the Mediterranean towards Europe. When the wind finally drops, the skipper gives the signal to leave: “Ropes away, full steam ahead,” and Mission M3 starts. It takes them 30 hours to reach their target area. Petra Oeckler is the duty officer: thanks to her nautical experience the 46-year-old pilots the ship during the 4-hour shift and is fully responsible. During rescue actions she is supposed to be part of the “RIB crew,” the crew in the rescue dinghy. But this information is pure theory at that point.

More and more sightings

The mission gets off to a slow start. During the first day in the target area off Tripolis there is no sighting at all. During the second day some text-book rescue actions take place: first one rubber boat with 130 refugees, then further dilapidated boats. Everyone exhausted, but doing ok. Altogether 411 people receive initial support, are provided with bottled water and life vests, and help gets called. Other ships take the rescued people on board. “Standard procedure,” says the Ebensfeld woman. “At that point we were still in a very good mood.” But more and more sightings follow, more and more death traps appear in the Mediterranean. It is Good Friday. Events start to come thick and fast. At sunrise, around 5h30, three boats in distress are drifting in the patrolled area. One thousand people are in danger, some are exhaustedly fighting for their lives in the salty water. “It was awful. On the mercilessly overcrowded boats total chaos reigned and the people in the water were panicking,” Oeckler explains. For hours, the Sea-Eye and other rescue boats are fighting for the refugees’ lives, throwing life vests and other floatable items and helping them leave their shaky boats. And they are getting into danger themselves. “Out of sheer panic, people were jumping into the rescue dinghy left and right, sometimes hitting the rescuers.” On the boats men with leather belts are beating their fellow passengers without mercy. Their questionable aim: to create order. At this moment, there is no time to think : the 46-year-old and the other volunteers save refugee after refugee from certain death as only very few are able to swim. The fight takes many hours and wears them out. But tiredness is no excuse. “The Sea-Eye doesn’t really take refugees on board because there is not enough space on the refurbished fishing cutter.”  But in this situation an exception becomes necessary: there are no rescue ships nearby which still have capacities. When the generator fails and smoke curls up, the engineer recommends that the skipper stop the mission and return to the home port. The Sea-Eye is in emergency mode, at restricted function. “We still had 286 people on board. Luckily there was no panic. That would have ended tragically.” Only at midnight does the German navy ship “Rhein” finally take over the rescued people.

The Sea-Eye briefly heads towards Valetta. For 30 minutes, until the next SOS call. “Mayday. Sinking rubber boat.” The search plane “Moonbird” has sent this SOS call. In spite of their own emergency situation, the Sea-Eye crew don’t hesitate. “We don’t ask ourselves the question whether to help or not.” A sinking rubber boat leaves them no choice. If one did not rush there, hundreds would miserably die. Irresponsible. Full speed ahead.

The intention only to “assist” and not to take people on board doesn’t last long. The Sea-Eye crew take 202 people across the green steel ship’s side. “Sometimes the people from the rubber boats were holding on to us so fast in their fear that we were black and blue afterwards,” the 46-year-old explains. Others cling to other people in their boat in their fear of death. The air is escaping faster and faster from the white rubber bubbles of the wreck, the water level is rising. The rescuers are working under great pressure. And while the boat is emptying, the full tragedy becomes visible: nine lifeless bodies are floating in the water.

Petra Oeckler is close by, helping with the recovery of the refugees. She notices the dead bodies in the water. Not more. “In this situation you don’t think about it. The thoughts arrive only later.” The emotions, too. “I have never felt such helplessness. Nor so much rage that the EU is doing nothing. That every year so many people are left to die. What a disgrace!”

Crowded closely together, the rescued people sit on the upper deck. Men, women, youths, children. Suffering from hypothermia, they exchange their dripping wet clothes for thin rescue blankets and painters’ overalls. An emergency solution. The Sea-Eye’s medics are extremely busy. A pregnant woman in her mid-twenties gets carried into the small room on board, which serves as the hospital now. She is motionless from exhaustion and exposure and her heart stops. Desperate attempts to resuscitate her. Over and over. It is too late. With her, her unborn baby dies.

Warning signs

“Again and again we went through the rows of people, touching them to see whether they were still alive. Whether they continued to survive.” The situation gets worse by the hour. The worries about the health situation grow. The ship begins to roll heavily and is at risk of toppling at high swell. Warning signs both on the technical and human sides. The Sea-Eye decides to send its own emergency signal. But it takes hours until other ships arrive to help.

“And the world doesn’t care…” Back at home, Oeckler tries to retain her composure. The rescue mission, which is financed through donations only, has rescued 7,636 people in the Mediterranean as of end of April. The M3 rescued 1,389 of them. “I am not proud of the number of rescued people. Instead I cry for those who didn’t make it.”

Into the water of all places

Together with supporters, Michael Buschheuer, the chairman of the organisation Sea-Eye, erected white wooden crosses on an island in the Danube close to Regensburg. A memorial for each refugee who died over Easter. Petra Oeckler and her husband Udo Nuffer recently visited this memorial. It helps them to deal with the events. “Sadly, only three crosses are still standing,” she says, her voice trembling slightly, “vandals threw the others into the water.” Into the water of all places.

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