“A major catastrophe is unfolding”

January 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

On 15 December 2010, in horrible weather, a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) smashed into rocks on the north-west coast of Christmas Island.  Forty-one men, women and children were saved. At least twenty-eight died.

The official “internal review” on the tragedy was released today.

ACV Triton and HMAS Pirie were the two Customs and Border Protection vessels at Christmas Island at the time. But they didn’t just have one boat on their hands.

They had four*.

ACV Triton was already carrying 108 boat people from two boats – SIEV 218 and 219 – discovered near Ashmore Reef, while HMAS Pirie was guarding the hulk of SIEV 220 whose sixteen passengers and crew had already been transferred to Christmas Island.

Those dangerous conditions included 40 knot winds, overcast skies and rain, and a 3-4 metre swell that effectively had the island in a lock down. Nothing can land at Christmas Island in this weather. Not aircraft, not the monthly supply ship, not the muscly and experienced Australian Customs vessels, and certainly not a broken-down wooden boat from Indonesia.

Why wasn’t SIEV 221 noticed earlier? And why did it take an hour and a half to get a rescue vessel over there? There were a few reasons:

  • The time of day. It was very early morning. The boat came to Christmas Island under cover of darkness.
  • The weather. There was no aerial surveillance going on. Border protection “intelligence” was aware of SIEV 220, already at Christmas Island, and what later became known as SIEV 222 in the vicinity of Ashmore Reef. SIEV 221 simply…slipped through the net.

    ACV Triton and HMAS Pirie were taking cover from the melee over on the eastern side of the island, doing the best they could to protect their own vessels, crew and passengers (ACV Triton was itself carrying seventy per cent more passengers than it was designed for) while juggling the hulk of SIEV 220. Neither vessel was actively monitoring radar at the time and if they had been, it would not have seen through the landmass between them and the stricken boat. In fact, most people were still asleep when SIEV 221 was first spotted by a Customs officer on the northern edge of the island at 5.40am. The wooden boat – officially named a “Contact Of Interest” – was about 600 metres off shore.

  • The protocols. As a response properly, but agonisingly slowly, shifted into gear, it gradually became obvious that the boat had no power and was drifting towards the rocks. At 6.16am, when the boat was less than 100 metres off shore, Customs and Border Protection at Christmas Island phoned Canberra (Canberra! Five thousand kilometres away!) to announce that “a major catastrophe is unfolding”.
  • The technical issues. HMAS Pirie was deployed to the scene, about a thirty minute journey around the northern perimeter of the island. Incredibly, she broke down, causing a delay as engines were restarted. Inflatable boats were sent ahead.

At 7.05am the rescue and recovery mission began. SIEV 221 had been on the rocks, and its inhabitants in the churning water, for twenty-five minutes.


*A further three boats, SIEV 222, 223 and 224, were intercepted within a week of this tragedy.

What do we do? What can we do?

May the lost, brave refugees of this storm rest in peace. And may the survivors find new hope here.




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