Notes from a boat tragedy inquest

Tony Kevin | 01 July 2013

Last week I attended the first two days of the WA Coroner’s inquest into the sinking of SIEV 358 on 21 June 2012. Rules of court reporting prevent me from commenting on testimonies presented so far, or predicting any findings.

But some things can be reported about what is shaping up to be the most thorough public examination ever of Australian rescue-at-sea protocols and practice in respect of assisting people on Suspected Irregular Entry Vessels (SIEVs) who send distress calls to Australian authorities. (It has been generally accepted Australian practice, as testified to by ministers and officials, that every maritime distress call must be investigated.)

According to survivor accounts referenced at the inquest, the overloaded old boat had been taking on water and travelling very slowly. It had possibly sustained hull damage when it ran aground and was then pulled off a sandbank early in the four-day voyage. Finally an engine cooling pipe broke irreparably, causing the boat to rapidly fill with water, resulting in engine failure and capsize soon after 4.30am Australian Western Standard Time (all times herein are AWST) on 21 June. Survivors then spent many hours in the water or on the capsized hull.

The boat capsized 107 NM from Indonesia and 110 NM from Christmas Island. Two merchant ships and two Navy frigates on border protection duties came soon after AMSA issued an emergency distress call to shipping, rescuing 114 people from the water. Ninety people drowned.

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