Islanders can do little as waves destroy refugee boat off Australia

Special to The Times

Shortly after dawn Wednesday, residents of an isolated Australian island community heard the screams of children just offshore.

One by one, the inhabitants of tiny Christmas Island ran to the water’s edge to find scores of asylum-seekers -- their wooden boat dashed against razor-sharp rocks -- being tossed about by seas one onlooker likened to “an open washing machine.”

Late Wednesday, officials were still searching for survivors and tallying the mounting deaths. So far, 27 bodies have been recovered from the water. Forty-one survivors were rescued from the sea and one passenger made it to shore of an estimated 70 on the boat.

" Australia, Australia, help, help, help!” the survivors, who authorities believe hail from Iraq and Iran, called out to bystanders garlanded along the steep limestone cliffs.


As naval rescue boats edged in to pluck survivors from the sickening swells, townsfolk made one valiant effort after another to save the lives of total strangers, according to local newspaper accounts. They lowered ropes and ladders and tossed life preservers and makeshift flotation devices into the water.

But winds from a nearby cyclone blew many of the preservers back into their faces. Those that did reach panicked passengers, most of whom apparently couldn’t swim, were often of little help.

Witnesses described how one child who clutched a floating shard of the destroyed boat seemed reluctant to let go of his mooring. Then he did, but disappeared before reaching the preserver just a few feet away. They watched other survivors dashed against the rocks, or pulled below the unpredictable seas.

“There are bodies all over the water,” one resident told the Western Australian newspaper. “There are dead babies, dead women and dead children. The swell is unbelievably big.”

Christmas Island, a phosphate mining center about 1,600 miles northwest of Perth, is home to Australia’s main offshore immigration detention center. The island has about 1,400 residents, most of them living near the community of Flying Fish Cove.

The refugee issue has divided Australia and played a role in recent parliamentary elections, where one conservative candidate campaigned on a platform to “stop the boats.” As many as 6,000 undocumented boat refugees arrive in the country each year.

Witnesses described the 40-foot-long wooden boat as typical of those that risk the restless Indian Ocean waters in search of asylum. This one was a weather-beaten red, with a blue tarp stretched over part of the deck to protect passengers from the relentless equatorial sun.

Around 5 a.m., residents headed to work saw the boat chugging toward an inlet at Flying Fish Cove. When its engines smoked and later died in the swell, the craft began to be tossed about as if it were a toy, with many passengers thrown overboard.


“For a while it looked all right as it was sitting around the front of Flying Fish Cove,” one witness told The Western Australian. “But then one big wave came along and smashed them onto the cliff. Once they hit that cliff, it was all over.”

Another bystander described people floating amid the boat debris, unable to reach help as surf pounded the rocks and sent thunderous sprays into the air.

“We were throwing out ropes and lifejackets but no one could grab on to the ropes. I saw children hanging on to the side of the boat, just holding on,” she told the newspaper. “There were all others hanging on to rocks and what was left of the boat. Wave after wave was coming in and it was very, very rough. The rocks were very jagged and it’s a very steep area around there.”

But residents kept working. Many ran home to collect more lifejackets.


“People were passing by asking what was going on and how they could help but it was terrible, there was basically nothing we could do,” one woman told reporters.

The waters off Australia’s western coast are patrolled by Customs and Naval vessels looking for smuggling operations and illegal fishermen, but rough weather and the start of the cyclone season meant that there have been no patrols for the last few days, officials said.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, an organization that provides medical care to Australia’s most isolated areas, said officials were en route to the island to collect the most severely injured survivors.

“We understand that there are over 30 injured but we don’t know the extent of those injuries,” she said.


As Wednesday dragged on, many locals acknowledged that their rescue efforts were in vain.

“It was just a horrible situation, just so sad,” one resident told the Western Australian. “But what can you do; we tried very hard to help and so many people couldn’t get out.” Bennett, a special correspondent, reported from Sydney. Glionna reported from Seoul.