Boat breaks apart off Australia island; 27 dead
Sydney, December 16, 2010
A wooden boat packed with asylum seekers smashed against jagged rocks in a storm off an Australian island yesterday, flinging terrified occupants into churning waters and killing at least 27 people.
Christmas Island residents on a cliff above watched in horror as the boat - carrying more than 70 people - broke apart with a crack, dumping screaming men, women and children into monstrous waves that pounded them against the rocks.
"It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful," island resident Simon Prince was quoted as saying in our sister publication, the Gulf Daily News.
Forty-one survivors were plucked from the seas, and one person made it to shore.
"The rescue is being conducted in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions," the Customs and Border Protection Service said.
Women and children were among the dead, Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service sent doctors to the island to treat 30 injured victims. Three patients were critically injured, two men with head injuries and one woman with blunt abdominal trauma.
Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said the vessel was a people smuggler's boat, but it was not clear where the passengers were from.
Christmas Island is a remote Australian territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and a frequent target of refugee hopefuls, who are housed in a detention centre there. Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan who want to start a new life.
"This incident is a tragic reminder of the danger faced by people fleeing persecution and human rights violations in their home countries, and the desperate measures they will resort to in search of safety," said Richard Towle, the UN Refugee Agency's regional representative.
Photos and videos taken by witnesses at the scene show the wooden boat crashing into the rocks and breaking apart. The images also show people floating in the water amid the wreckage.
The boat was about six to nine metres long, with a cabin covered by a sheet of fabric or plastic.
Prince, who lives next to the cliff where the boat crashed, said he was woken early yesterday by what he thought were cheers. He walked to the cliff and instead heard cries for help from a boat just offshore.
"The engine had failed," Prince said.
"They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty."
Prince said the boat tossed for an hour before it finally hit the rocks at the base of the cliff. – TradeArabia News Service