Indonesians waited six hours after mayday call

August 30, 2012 - 4:31PM
Michael Bachelard, Jakarta

Almost six hours passed after the Indonesian search and rescue agency was alerted of a distress call from a sinking asylum seeker boat before they dispatched vessels to search for it.

The boat, with about 150 people on board, sank in the sea south-west of Java early on Wednesday morning. Only six people have so far been recovered alive.

A spokesman for the Indonesian agency, Basarnas, told this website that they had received word of the boat in distress at 1.31am Jakarta time on Wednesday morning (4.31am AEST).

But Indonesia does not have the capacity to mount a search at night, so it was not until 7.15am that a helicopter and two boats were sent to the area.

“We never conduct operations at night time because we don't have the facilities and because bureaucratically speaking it's complicated,” said Basarnas spokesman Gagah Prakoso.

“The helicopters are not equipped with devices designed for night-time flying. And in order to dispatch boats we normally must get a permit [from the harbour] but the harbour office doesn't do it at night time.

“Our operations are always at day time because doing it at night can be dangerous for the rescuers.”

In the first communication, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority advised that the boat was eight nautical miles from the Java coast.

Mr Prakoso said that by the time Basarnas crews — two ships and a helicopter — made it to the area, they found nothing.

“We searched into quite a large area, I think. We searched within a radius of 30km from the point eight nautical miles south-west of Java, which AMSA told us yesterday,” Mr Prakoso said.

It was not until the early hours of Thursday — more than 24 hours after the original distress signal — that sa merchant vessel, APL Bahrain, found six survivors in the water. They were found 42 nautical miles from the coast — about 34 nautical miles away from the location AMSA had originally advised.

“[Yesterday] we covered the area where the boat was found today but it wasn't there at all. There was zero sighting of any boat yesterday,” Mr Prakoso said.

The most likely reason was that sea currents and the wind had brought the boat from a long way off to the point, he said.

Australia's Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, defended the initial response by Indonesian authorities.

He confirmed that six people were rescued by a cargo ship this morning but said grave fears were held for the remainder of the 150 people reportedly on the sunken vessel. Mr Clare said he expected survivors to be returned to Indonesia.

"We have a window of opportunity. People can survive in the sea for up to 36, maybe 48 hours, and that's why so many vessels are heading to the scene," he said.

The latest incident comes after the deaths of about 300 asylum seekers since December along the same route between Java and Christmas Island.

Mr Clare, along with Australian ministers for defence, Stephen Smith, and transport, Anthony Albanese, will visit Jakarta next week for high-level talks about defence and search-and-rescue coordination.

The Indonesians may push at those meetings for Australia to help with physical resources — rescue boats and planes.

Apart from lacking night-search capability, Basarnas also has limited ability to dispatch boats in heavy seas, and the Indonesian navy is reluctant to send warships on rescue missions.

Basarnas has told this website in the past that it plans to buy a 60-metre ocean-going catamaran from Singapore. However, it will not be operational until early next year.

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