New Zealander Shaun Cornelius works for Médecins Sans Frontières as a logistician. He has recently returned from his third placement, on the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Mediterranee in the Mediterranean. Shaun describes the differences in scale between a straightforward rescue and a more difficult rescue.
“In a straightforward rescue the sea is calm and the rubber boat is still intact and has been at sea for maybe only five hours. The MV Aquarius stands about 300m away. The ship crew and SAR crew launch the two fast rescue boats. The rescue boats approach the boat slowly and circle it while the crew and Médecins Sans Frontières’ cultural mediators call out to the occupants in English, French and Arabic, to explain what will happen next, and to calm them down. Once people are settled, the rescue boats move in closer and start handing life jackets into the boats and explaining how to put them on. The Médecins Sans Frontières medics board the boat and do a quick assessment, looking for women, children and anyone that is seriously ill. These people are transferred to the MV Aquarius first. The fast rescue boats can only take 18 people at a time. One rescue boat is used for transfers, while the other remains with the rubber boat to maintain calm and make sure no one jumps in the water.
"They start throwing lifejackets to people in the water, particularly trying to get them to people who look like they are in the most trouble."
In a more difficult rescue the sea is rough, the target boat has been at sea for 12 hours or more, the boat is flooded and partially deflated, i.e. on the verge of sinking. Launching the fast rescue boats is difficult in the heavy swell. As the rescue boats approach, people panic and start jumping into the water. Within seconds there are 60 or 70 people in the water, many of whom cannot swim. The rescue boats abandon the normal routine. They start throwing lifejackets to people in the water, particularly trying to get them to people who look like they are in the most trouble. The second rescue boat goes back to the MV Aquarius and tows over flotation devices, which are long inflatable tubes with ropes that people can hold onto. These are pushed into the mass of people struggling in the water. It is a chaotic scene, with people screaming in the water and jumping out of the sinking boat. On the MV Aquarius we look on with horror as this unfolds. Gradually the situation stabilises, and people are lifted out of the water onto the rescue boats and shuttled to the MV Aquarius. Lifting one person out of the water and onto a boat is hard; to do it 60 times is something else. By the time everyone is recovered the search and rescue crews are exhausted.
The people coming onto the MV Aquarius are cold, tired, disoriented and in shock. Many are soaked in gasoline which is burning their skin, and are intoxicated from the fumes. They have trouble standing on the heaving, slippery deck. Médecins Sans Frontières and other crew steady them, take the life jackets off and guide them down a chain of hands around towards the stern deck. We help them get their clothes off, start hosing them down and washing them with soap. Women and children are taken directly into the shelter and clinic inside the ship. The medics are flat out triaging patients and providing emergency treatment.Two hours later everyone is washed and in clean clothes, wrapped in blankets and huddled in the sheltered areas of the deck. In the clinic the medics will be busy for many more hours treating skin burns and providing critical care for people who have inhaled seawater and gasoline.”