LÉ ‘Niamh: ‘It was over in a matter of 30 seconds’

Irish commander describes trauma and chaos, writes Paddy Agnew in Palermo

Around 300 people are thought to have survived after a wooden boat, carrying around 600, capsized off the coast of Libya. Video: Médécins Sans Frontières

 

“It was all over in a matter of 30 seconds. It was incredible how quickly it went down – it just shows how overcrowded the vessel was and how unseaworthy too.”

Cdr Ken Minihan of the Naval Service was speaking on the harbour in Palermo, just after the LÉ Niamh docked with 367 survivors from Wednesday’s tragedy in the Mediterranean when an overcrowded fishing vessel carrying migrants capsized. They had paid a trafficker to take them from Libya to Europe, a route followed by thousands of migrants this year.

The LÉ Niamh also brought 25 bodies into Palermo. The number who drowned, 110km north-west of Tripoli, is not known, but may exceed 200.

For a man who had spent the previous day pulling bodies out of the water as he watched others drown, Cdr Minihan was impressively lucid as he recalled the rescue operation. The migrants’ vessel capsized in sight of the LÉ Niamh which had dispatched two Ribs [rigid inflatable boats] towards it.

“As we approached the vessel . . . we noticed that individuals were moving about, making the vessel extremely unstable. All of that movement was too much . . .

“When the vessel capsized and there were lots of people in the water, our [smaller] boats moved off from the Niamh, these are boats which normally carry lots of life jackets with them.

“Normally we would hand these out to people once in the boats but what we had to do yesterday was to sail around them, trying to stay away from the big groups of people and try to throw life jackets at them because we didn’t want them to get caught on the propellers of our rescue boats . . .

“In the meantime, the captain ordered the release of four extra life rafts that we were carrying on board . . .

Life jackets

“So we told people to swim to the life rafts and this is what they did, allowing us in the meantime to hand out life jackets to nearly every person in the water so that they could remain afloat. Obviously not all of them did . . . that is unfortunate”

Even if they recounted their operation with military reserve, both Cdr Minihan and his deputy Lieut Cdr Daniel Wall acknowledged this had been a very “different” experience.

While they managed to resuscitate one child, there were other situations where the LÉ Niamh crew found themselves trying to comfort parents who had managed to physically hold onto their child but who had not been able to save the child from drowning in the chaos of the sinking.

Traumatic

Given the traumatic nature of the events witnessed by the crew, the Naval Service will this week be sending professional counsellors out to the ship.

However, the mission goes on with the LÉ Niamh not due to return to Ireland for the time being.

Reflecting on the fate of survivors – Syrians, Palestinians, Bangladeshi and others – Cdr Minihan had no doubts about who were the culprits behind this most recent tragedy.

“The people who caused this sinking are the smugglers, there should never have been so many people on the boat . . . this was a boat which at the maximum, should carry 50 people”.