Wednesday

1st Dec 2021

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Ocean Viking's largest ever rescue - witnessed first-hand

  • A total of 369 people were found on the boat, in the middle of Libya's search-and-rescue region (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The sky and the water are both the colour of the night, inseparable from one another.

With the exception of the faint glimmer of a Libyan gas platform in the far distance, the horizon had all but disappeared.

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  • Exhausted survivors find space to sleep. The women and children are placed in a separate shelter onboard (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Onboard the Ocean Viking search-and-rescue vessel, the bridge had five hours earlier been alerted of numerous people on a boat somewhere in the Libyan search-and-rescue region.

Details were scant, and - with the Libyan coast guard making record interceptions - the chance of finding them on the boat appeared slim.

But the Ocean Viking still pressed on, its exhausted crew up since 3am, after two other rescues that had taken place earlier that same day.

The wooden boat had first been spotted by Pilot Volontaires, an NGO. Its location was approximately 80 nautical miles from the Libyan port city of Zuwara, a known smuggling hub.

"We have a visual, it is only a blinking light. It is less than one mile away," search-and-rescue team leader Jeremie [EUobserver is only using the crew's first names] told his small crew onboard the Ocean Viking at around 9.30 pm on Sunday (4 July).

"It is night time, we can't see shit. I don't want to hear any sound, I want everybody to be focused," he told them.

"We don't know what it is at all, so we are going to launch, we are going to have to investigate ourselves."

Ten minutes later, Jeremie's rescue speed boat was lowered into the black sea with EUobserver onboard.

The second speed boat, led by Charlie, was launched from the Ocean Viking's starboard.

It then pulled back from the Ocean Viking with Jeremie radioing the bridge asking for an estimated bearing of the distress case.

"Zero, four, one from the ship and 1.6 miles," replied the bridge.

The twin 115 horsepower outboard engines churned the water a frothing white, as they headed in the direction of the bearing.

They then pass in front of the Ocean Viking, also at full speed, its massive red bow momentarily towering over us.

The bridge then suddenly loses visual on the wooden boat - but is still able to track it on radar, now appearing as a green dot on a monitor.

"Five degrees starboard side. You are three cables away," says the bridge, over the radio.

Then Ocean Viking slows down to a stop as the two speed boats continue slowly, and at distance, into the near-silent darkness.

Standing on the bow platform, Jeremie shines a flood light into the water, momentarily turning the surface of the sea into hues of dark slate.

He then switches it off, the engines kick into gear and the speed boat begins to slowly advance into nothingness.

But then in the near distance a sharp white light suddenly appears and then disappears.

"We are struggling to follow the light," says Jeremie into the radio, as they advance.

Apparition

The people emerge like an apparition.

First the blue hull of the wooden boat and then the vague silhouette of bodies, some standing.

"Light the water and the structure of the boat for the moment," Jeremie tells Charlie, over the radio.

Hundreds. Squeezed one-by-one. Their legs dangling over the edge of the boat as the sound of their excited voices become clearer and clearer.

A bilge pump on the side is channeling out water, suggesting more people are in the hull.

Jeremie calls it in, telling the bridge they'll have to launch the third speed boat along with at least two life-rafts.

"I guess we have to go by the book," he says, also requesting additional life jackets to those already brought along.

His rescue boat touches the stern of the wooden, and shines a light over their faces.

In the back, a person holds up a baby before sitting down.

Jeremie's Egyptian crew member Hassan stands next to him, ready to interpret and shout instructions in Arabic for those on board.

Disembarking is the most dangerous moment

The moment is critical.

An overexcited crowd can be dangerous, may capsize the boat and lead to massive drownings.

None appear to be wearing any life jackets, and a few are holding black inflated tubes.

"We are going to be here the whole night," says Jeremie.

The plan appears straightforward.

Extract 25 people at a time, shuttle them back to Ocean Viking and then return with 25 additional life jackets.

"This boat is dangerous - those people, and those people," shouts Jeremie, pointing to those seated on the very edge.

"They are in danger," he says, noting they will get the first life jackets.

Some begin to shout, one is pushed, and a fear appears to spread in the crowd.

The speed boat quickly pulls back into the distance, waits for the calm to restore and then returns.

The extraction begins, one by one they are brought on the rescue boats and ferried back.

On the Ocean Viking, the medical and deck crew teams are helping the new arrivals.

A group of Libyans from an earlier rescue are helping as well, handing out surgical masks, spraying santisers on their hands while welcoming the near new arrivals with pats on the back.

A young man from Bangladesh is in total shock, sobbing uncontrollably into his arm, his right hand shaking as he takes a seat on a wooden bench by the medical module. "Thank you, thank you so much," he says through tears.

The last survivor, out of a 369 saved on this night, stepped onto the Ocean Viking at 3.30 in the morning.

It is the largest rescue ever carried out by the Ocean Viking. The total number of survivors currently on board is 572, also a record.

Now they have to find a port of safety and disembark, a prospect that will likely lead to a stand-off with the authorities.

For its part, the European Commission told EUobserver on Monday (5 July) it had no say in the matter, and will not put any political pressure to ease disembarkation for the Ocean Viking.

Author bio

Nikolaj Nielsen, an EUobserver journalist, is embedded on the Ocean Viking for the coming weeks, reporting exclusively from the boat on the Mediterranean migration route.

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