Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Useless police boats

Two vessels at Christmas Island were not operational on the day an asylum seeker boat shipwrecked on the island’s cliffs, killing up to 50 people, because they were deemed unsafe and were not certified to be on the water, a coronial inquiry into the tragedy was told today.

Four vessels – two Navy and two Customs – were used in the desperate rescue attempt in perilous conditions as the vessel known as SIEV 221 crashed into rocks and sank on December 15. Only 42 of the 89 people on board the wooden vessel survived.

Giving evidence at the inquest, Australian Maritime Safety Authority ship inspections manager Alex Schultz-Altmann said the Australian Federal Police vessel stationed at Christmas Island, the Colin Winchester, and a volunteer marine rescue boat, the Sea Eye, could not be used in the dangerous rescue because they were overweight and had buoyancy issues, which put the vessels at risk of rolling over at sea.

Mr Schultz-Altmann said the Colin Winchester was inspected in August last year and the AFP was given three months to rectify its deficiencies, but to date the vessel’s certification of survey was still cancelled, ruling it inactive. He said the design problems also applied to another two AFP vessels around Australia.

The Sea Eye had been quarantined from use since it arrived on Christmas Island last July because of its design flaws, he said.

Mr Schultz-Altmann told the inquest the vessels were banned from normal operations, but could be used as a last resort in life-threatening emergencies at sea. But he said the vessels could only be used in fair-weather rescues and would not be able to cope with wave height greater than 1.5m. Wave conditions on the day of the shipwreck were far worse than that.

He said it was up to the person who operated the vessels to understand their limitations and not to put lives of people on board the boats at risk.

When questioned by counsel assisting the Coroner Malcolm McCusker, Mr Schultz-Altmann said he was not sure what type of vessel would be suitable at Christmas Island but said the AFP was looking into replacement vessels.

Mr Schultz-Altmann said two other Customs vessels at Christmas Island had rough weather limitations placed on them, but they were patrol and law enforcement boats that were not suitable for search and rescue.


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