Larne medic leads rescue mission for shipwreck victims
A Larne doctor who now works for the Flying Doctor Service in Australia is leading efforts to save the lives of injured asylum seekers who survived a boat disaster off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Forty-two people survived but at least 27 bodies, including those of women and children, were recovered from the water after their boat smashed on jagged rocks.
With rescue efforts hampered by the mountainous seas and atrocious weather conditions, the death toll was expected to rise.
Dr David McIlroy said three people were in a critical condition in hospital.
The wooden vessel had around 70 people onboard, believed to be from Iran and Iraq, when it was swept against the rocks during a treacherous storm yesterday.
Dr McIlroy said: “We're expecting at the minute to get two gentlemen with head injuries and a lady with abdominal injuries.
“If other patients come up before we get there, we'll be able to deal with those as well.
“We're taking two critical care teams with us, two doctor-nurse teams, so we can bring back two intensive care patients.”
Mayor of Larne Andy Wilson said the whole town was proud of Dr McIlroy’s efforts.
“This is a very tragic event and our thoughts are with the families of those who have died,” Mr Wilson said.
“The town of Larne is very proud of David and our thoughts are with him and his medical team at this difficult time.”
Asylum seekers who illegally enter Australian waters by boat are sent to a detention centre where their future is determined.
Simon Prince, a dive boat operator who raised the alarm after being awoken by screams for help, said: “People were flying through the air and being crushed against the cliffs. There were dead bodies in the water, children. I've got some very disturbing imagery stuck in my head.”
The fishing boat had sailed from Indonesia — a route taken by the majority of refugees heading for Australia. Christmas Island, 1,600 miles north-west of Perth but only 220 miles from Indonesia, is the first land that such vessels encounter. It is also the site of Australia's largest immigration detention centre.
Yesterday's disaster shocked Australians, with some denouncing the “people smugglers” who had set out in cyclonic conditions.
Refugee advocates, meanwhile, claimed the government's hostility to “illegal” immigrants had played a part.
“The fact there isn't a welcome refugee policy makes it less likely that people on boats are willing to contact Australian authorities and to rendezvous safely,” said Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition.
Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said Australian officials must have known the doomed vessel was on its way.
“What happened is that they allowed this boat to head towards Christmas Island, knowing there's a three to five-metre swell which would make it impossible for such a fragile boat to land safely.”
The island, ringed by limestone pinnacles and deep water, is always potentially hazardous for sailors, but particularly during the November-March monsoon season.
Yesterday, the ocean was “like a washing machine”, according to Michael Foster, a local electrician.
The winds blew many of the life-jackets back on to shore. But even people who managed to grab one did not survive.
The UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, said yesterday's disaster was “a tragic reminder of the danger faced by people fleeing persecution in their home countries”.