15/04: A deadly void in the Central Med: Rescue of 100 travellers delayed 24 hours

17.04.2017 / 15:22 / Central Mediterranean Sea

Watch The Med Alarm Phone Investigations – 15th of April 2017

Case name: 2017_04_15-CM104
Situation: A deadly void in the Central Med: Rescue of 100 travellers delayed 24 hours
Status of WTM Investigation: Concluded
Place of Incident: Central Mediterranean Sea

Summary of the Case: On Saturday the 15th of April 2017 at 7.19am, Father Mussie Zerai informs our shift team about a boat in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea. According to the information in his possession, the boat had left Al Khums/Libya the evening before, and was thus located much further to the east of where most NGOs conduct their Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. As per standard procedure, the shift team immediately tries to call the precarious passengers and communicates their GPS position and satellite phone number to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome. The Italian authorities reply that a SAR operation is ongoing, although, following our research, the presence of rescue assets in this area cannot be verified through vessel tracking websites.
From 9.40am onwards, we are in direct contact with the travellers, who call us frequently. They are worried and anxious, as they have been at sea already for the whole night. 20 children as well as 10 women, one of whom is pregnant, are among the approximately 100 travellers on board. In our log-book, our shift team notes: 11.34am: They called us again, they were really nervous […]. They say the boat is in really bad condition, they are taking water out, but it gets worse, water is coming in, they don’t have much petrol anymore, they were begging me really hard to help them, I told them that a ship is looking for them. Over the following hours, we continuously recharge the credit of their satellite phone, receive updated GPS positions and pass them on to MRCC Rome. The authorities state that they are looking for a vessel that could conduct a SAR operation. However, we then observe how a cargo ship near the boat-people, the Lady Rasha, is doing some circling movements, obviously searching for the boat. But at about 1pm we realise that this ship stops the search and continues its route in direction of the Libyan port of Misrata. MRCC in Rome does not give any explanation to us, and no other vessel can be spotted in the vicinity. In light of this, shortly afterwards, we reach out to the NGO Sea-Watch to enquire whether they might be able to conduct a search operation with their humanitarian plane Moonbird, which they operate together with the Swiss Humanitarian Pilots Initiative. In coordination with MRCC Rome, the crew decides to take off for their second flight that day. They reach the area of distress at around 2.50pm. At 3.10pm, we communicate again with the travellers – they are adrift at sea, with no plane or boat in sight. They scream for help, panic begins to spread. Meanwhile, the Moonbird searches in different areas, flying patterns for more than two hours, yet unable to spot the boat in distress. It is during this period that the boat-people inform us that “there is no plane around, there is a ship very far, please ask them to help us”. According to vessel tracking websites, it seems to be the AS Elenia, a bulk carrier, flying the Liberian flag. We forward this information to the Moonbird, which attempts to re-direct its aerial search. At 4.33pm, the boat-people yell out to us, “we see the plane, we see the plane”, but the crew of the Moonbird is still unable to find them. We can see how the AS Elenia moves toward the last GPS position provided by the travellers and at 5.25pm MRCC Rome confirms that they would give the AS Elenia the permission to conduct a SAR operation until the arrival of the Italian coastguards. At 5.30pm, the Moonbird finally spots the boat-people. They forward the GPS position to MRCC Rome and also move in the direction of AS Elenia. Before heading back to Malta – as the plane is running out of fuel – the pilots signal the boat’s position to the crew of AS Elenia, which was not on direct course to the boat in distress. Via radio, they urge them to conduct a rescue operation, but the captain of AS Elenia hesitates to do so, following his account, due to security reasons. At 6.14pm, seeing the AS Elenia approaching them, the boat-people await rescue. Yet, at 6.22pm, they call us again, realising that AS Elenia simply passes by. They say: “The big boat did not stop, please call them, please help us, the big boat is moving and we have no fuel, we can’t follow the big boat.” We reach out to MRCC Rome and inform them that AS Elenia is not stopping but instead continuing its course straight westward, apparently ignoring the boat-people’s distress situation. MRCC appreciates the information but refuses to give us any further details. At 7.08pm, about 45 minutes later, we observe how the AS Elenia changes course, and heads north, diverting from their set course (their port of destination was Gabes in Tunisia) but also moving away from the migrants’ boat. At 7.20pm, the boat-people tell us that their satellite phone is running out of battery. About twenty minutes later, they see the AS Elenia return, only to shortly afterwards see it turn around again. More desperation spreads among the people. About an hour later, MRCC Rome suggests that AS Elenia is not allowed to rescue unless the boat is in direct danger, which for them seems to mean capsizing. The bulk carrier disappears from the people’s sight. The travellers’ engine does not work, and water keeps entering their boat. At 8.59pm, we receive their updated GPS position for the last time. In conversation with MRCC Rome, the authorities state that they have instructed the AS Elenia to return and check on the situation. If the boat-people are in danger, the crew has to rescue immediately. In our log-book, our shift team notes: 9:52pm: [The boat-people] picked up the phone, they are yelling (hard to understand), they say they are in danger and the big boat is next to them but the rescue did not start yet. I told them to not panic and try to keep calm and tell them to call me again if anything changes. This was our last direct exchange with them. Afterwards, no contact could be established again, and we did not receive any update from MRCC Rome for more than 1 1/2 hours. Only at 11.20pm, MRCC Rome informs us that they requested the AS Elenia to conduct a rescue operation, but that the crew is not equipped to do so. The Italian authorities state that the crew would monitor the situation until the next morning, when another SAR vessel would reach the location. In fear that the boat-people might not survive another night at sea, we contact MRCC Rome later again. Past midnight, they tell us that the captain of the AS Elenia would not carry out a SAR operation but stay in stand by and provide water and food to the boat-people. MRCC Rome then informs us that for the next morning the Norwegian Frontex vessel Siem Pilot and later the tanker Yara Sela were ordered to the area of distress. While unable to speak to the boat-people over night, we see that they still make distress calls the next morning – the credit of their satellite phone continues to decrease. At 9.49am, MRCC Rome states that the boat-people would be rescued by a military vessel and that the SAR operation would be coordinated by Malta. Over hours and several exchanges with the authorities, Malta finally confirms at 1.37pm that the people have been rescued by the Frontex vessel Siem Pilot.
Last update: 10:31 Jun 11, 2017
Credibility: UP DOWN 0
Layers »
  • Border police patrols
    While the exact location of patrols is of course constantly changing, this line indicates the approximate boundary routinely patrolled by border guards’ naval assets. In the open sea, it usually correspond to the outer extent of the contiguous zone, the area in which “State may exercise the control necessary to prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws” (UNCLOS, art. 33). Data source: interviews with border police officials.
  • Coastal radars
    Approximate radar beam range covered by coastal radars operating in the frame of national marine traffic monitoring systems. The actual beam depends from several different parameters (including the type of object to be detected). Data source: Finmeccanica.
  • Exclusive Economic Zone
    Maritime area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea in which the coastal state exercises sovereign rights for the purposes of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, the seabed and its subsoil and the superjacent waters. Its breadth is 200 nautical miles from the straight baselines from which the territorial sea is measured (UNCLOS, Arts. 55, 56 and 57). Data source: Juan Luis Suárez de Vivero, Atlas of the European Seas and Oceans
  • Frontex operations
    Frontex has, in the past few years, carried out several sea operations at the maritime borders of the EU. The blue shapes indicate the approximate extend of these operations. Data source: Migreurop Altas.
  • Mobile phone coverage
    Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network coverage. Data source: Collins Mobile Coverage.
  • Oil and gas platforms
    Oil and gas platforms in the Mediterranean. Data source:
  • Search and Rescue Zone
    An area of defined dimensions within which a given state is has the responsibility to co-ordinate Search and Rescue operations, i.e. the search for, and provision of aid to, persons, ships or other craft which are, or are feared to be, in distress or imminent danger. Data source: IMO availability of search and rescue (SAR) services - SAR.8/Circ.3, 17 June 2011.
  • Territorial Waters
    A belt of sea (usually extending up to 12 nautical miles) upon which the sovereignty of a coastal State extends (UNCLOS, Art. 2). Data source: Juan Luis Suárez de Vivero, Atlas of the European Seas and Oceans