A rescue at sea

October 15, 2014

Mediterranean Sea

By Darrin Zammit Lupi

A barely perceptible dot on the horizon, disappearing every few seconds behind the rolling waves, a rubber dinghy carrying a group of migrants is very easily missed if you don’t know where to look.

Handout photo shows a group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued by the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station some 25 miles off the Libyan coast

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) ship Phoenix set off from the Italian island of Lampedusa the night before in the middle of a lightning storm and had, for the past five hours, been making its way towards the dinghy’s last known position.

MOAS, which started operating at the end of August, has to date been involved in the rescue of some 2,200 migrants crossing from Libyan shores. The Malta-based privately funded humanitarian initiative was set up by U.S. citizen Christopher Catrambone and his Italian wife Regina after the October 2013 Lampedusa tragedies, which left hundreds dead. They were inspired by the Pope’s appeal for entrepreneurs to do something tangible to help and to go beyond just donating money.

Handout photo shows paramedic of the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station examining an ill migrant in the infirmary on board the MOAS ship Phoenix off the coast of Sicily

They bought, refurbished and equipped the 40-metre ship Phoenix and took on a professional crew of rescuers, seafarers, paramedics and humanitarians.

As soon as I first heard about MOAS, I felt inspired by the premise that it operates under – that no one deserves to die at sea.  I’d wanted to get on board the Phoenix for the past several months  – there was one small problem – space on the Phoenix is at a premium on board and every inch is dedicated to saving lives. The only way I could get on was to convince them that even great photographs help save lives.

The ship had already been heading south to its usual area of operations when the call alerting MOAS to the migrants came in from Rome’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre as the Phoenix crew were having breakfast.

The Phoenix intercepted the dinghy close to the Bouri oil fields, in the Libyan search and rescue region.  Approaching the dinghy with the ship would be a recipe for disaster. All the migrants would try to push and shove their way to one side of their boat, causing it to capsize.

Handout photo shows a group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy preparing to board the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station ship Phoenix some 25 miles off the Libyan coast

A rigid-hulled inflatable boat was launched from the Phoenix.  Three crewmembers and I climbed in.  We were fully dressed in protective gear – disposable coveralls, taped down rubber gloves, masks – no one was taking any chances. Life jackets were quickly loaded and we set off at high speed towards the dinghy.  I tried my best to make sure my two camera bodies, carrying 16-35mm and 70-200mm lenses, kept dry as sea spray flew over us.

Within minutes, we pulled up alongside the dinghy, packed so tight with sub-Saharan Africans that they could barely sit down.  Just one of the 106 immigrants was wearing a life jacket. Their first reaction was one of suspicion – they did not know who we were or what we were doing.

Handout photo shows a group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy reaching out for life jackets tossed to them by rescuers of the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station some 25 miles off the Libyan coast

The most important thing to do at this point was to ensure they remained calm and establish contact with someone who spoke some English.

It quickly became clear who the natural leaders among the migrants were. We explained that we were there to help, and that we had already rescued hundreds of their compatriots.

After establishing that there were no women and children on board, nor any particularly ill and injured men, life jackets started to be tossed to them.

Handout photo shows rescuers of the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station tossing life jackets to a group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy some 25 miles off the Libyan coast

This is always a hazardous moment – they began scrambling and fighting over them and we had to repeat over and over again that there were enough life jackets for everyone.

Handout photo shows migrants reaching out to climb aboard the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station ship Phoenix as a group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy is rescued some 25 miles off the Libyan coast

In between taking pictures, I did my part in pleading with them to keep calm.

It was decided that the safest way to get the migrants onto the Phoenix was to gently nudge the dinghy up against the hull of the ship and to pull them up one by one.  Predictably, they all wanted to climb aboard at once.

The biggest danger remained capsizing, even though a rubber dinghy is actually a lot more stable than many people imagine.  One man half fell into the water as he tried to scramble on board before it was his turn, and it was only thanks to the fast reaction of a crew member who grabbed his flailing hand that he did not go all the way in or get caught between the ship and the dinghy, with potentially disastrous results.

Handout photo shows migrants on board the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station ship Phoenix reacting as the ship arrives at the port of Pozzallo in Sicily

My heart was pounding as I watched the scene through my viewfinder.  They were portraits of utter desperation.

As they emptied out the dinghy, I could see what the migrants were leaving behind – just a couple of empty water bottles and a handful of used fruit juice cartons. Their fuel supply was running low and even though they had not been on their perilous journey for very long, half the jerry cans were empty. At that point there was no doubt in my mind – these migrants had been sent out there to die.

Handout photo shows migrants resting under the heli-pad of the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station ship Phoenix as their rubber dinghy is burnt and sunk after their group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans was rescued some 25 miles off the Libyan coast

As there were no Italian navy or coastguard vessels anywhere nearby, the Phoenix was directed to head for Pozzallo in Sicily

The migrants had no choice but to spend the next 24 hours huddled at the back of the ship as it sailed through yet another storm.

Handout photo shows migrants on board the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station ship Phoenix sitting on the deck as the ship arrives at the port of Pozzallo in Sicily

Eating a delicious hot meal in the galley that night, and then lying in my comfortable bunk, I continued to feel restless.  Images of what I’d seen and photographed kept swirling in my mind, coupled with pangs of guilt because the people out on the deck were less comfortable then I was.

The migrants were handed over to the Italian authorities in Pozzallo on Sunday evening, and the Phoenix departed early next morning, heading back home after another successful mission.

As the Phoenix sailed into Valletta’s Grand Harbour, the Siege Bell tolled and the noonday gun on the harbour’s saluting battery was fired – it felt poetic, a sombre mood punctured by the sense of elation that this time, lives were saved.

Regina Catrambone bids farewell to her husband Christopher on board the Phoenix I before he sets sail with the vessel from Valletta's Grand Harbour

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