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‘There were too many people on the rubber boat, and we were too few’

Open Arms SAR Coordinator DAVID LLADO tells The Civil Fleet about the moment 118 refugees fell into sea when their boat split in half and how his team rescued them

RIGHT at the moment when the Open Arms‘ rescuers began transferring the first person onto a rigid-hull inflatable boat (Rhib), the back of the refugees’ deflating rubber vessel tore apart, dropping 119 people into the Mediterranean.

“Thank god everyone had already been given a life jacket,” says David Llado, the search-and-rescue (SAR) coordinator for the Spanish NGO’s eponymous ship.

“Because even with them, five people drowned. And then, later, a six-month-old baby boy that we were able to recover through CPR also died later while we were waiting for a medical evacuation.”

Llado, (pronounced Yado in Spanish), talks to me over the phone from the Open Arms a few days after transferring 259 rescued people from three operations in Libya’s SAR zone onto an Italian quarantine ship off the coast of Trapani, Sicily.

“We’d done the first rescue the day before,” he says.

It was the first time an NGO vessel had been able to carry out an SAR operation in the central Mediterranean since October, when Italy barred the sixth NGO rescue ship from leaving port due to a supposed slew of safety failings.

“As we were getting the people onto the boat, we got two different distress calls from two boats, one a small fibre boat and the other a rubber boat.

“The Rhibs didn’t even go back onto the ship. They went started a search pattern straight away.

“We were looking for about four or five hours, but we couldn’t see anything. We decided to resume the search again at sunrise.

“We put the Rhibs up and three hours later, at daylight, we started a new search pattern, keeping in mind the night’s conditions, the drift, the wind, etc.

“As we were searching for these two boats, we received a call from a Frontex plane, the Osprey 3.”

Frontex is the European Border and Coastguard agency. It — along with the Italian and Maltese maritime rescue co-ordination centres (MRCCs) as well as other EU institutions — hardly ever interacts with NGOs.

“The Osprey gave us a position, and so we went straight there,” Llado says. “It was the rubber boat we were looking for the night before.

“Imagine if we’d found them 30 minutes later, or if they didn’t all have life jackets when the boat ripped open. We wouldn’t be talking about six dead, we’d be talking about… I don’t know… 80.

“The people who drowned, they drowned because of panic. They didn’t stay on their back. I remember seeing people floating in life jackets but with their faces in the water. It was tragic.”

It took nearly two hours to get everyone out of the water. Llado began coordinating the mission from the deck of the Open Arms. But as soon as the crew had deployed two 25-metre-long inflatable tubes for the refugees to grab onto, Llado had one of the Rhibs come get him.

“I don’t remember the faces of the people I grabbed out of the water. We pulled someone into the Rhib and then another one and another one. We took them to the Open Arms, put them on board and went back to get more. It was a blur.

“We in the Rhibs felt like we had it hard but when we spoke with the people on board during the debrief, we realised it was also very difficult for them too.

“We were bringing people in and had to leave them there to get the others still at sea. There was a moment when the medical team had seven people who were not breathing, even the journalist tried to help with the CPR.

“We were able to recover three people. But unfortunately, not five others.”

Llado started working with the Spanish NGO back in 2017. He tells me he first got involved as a volunteer because he wanted to see what was going on in the Mediterranean with his own eyes.

“On my first mission, we rescued 494 people in 12 hours. So that was pretty crazy,” he says.

“You see all this suffering and how these people were treated on their way to Italy. I thought it made no sense. And since that first rescue, I couldn’t look away any more.”

He spent the next two years working as a skipper in one of the Open Arms’ Rhibs before the NGO hired him as the Open Arms’s SAR coordinator earlier this year.

“The captain is the one who takes control of the boat. We work together on the search patterns we take to find people at sea.

“All the lifeguard volunteers and everyone who comes here as a volunteer on the ship, they have to go through training. I’m in charge of that as well.”

Llado tells me that though the rescue was difficult, he was really proud of his team.

“Everyone worked so hard,” he says. “The magnitude of the situation, 118 people panicking in the water, and the wind, we couldn’t have done better.

“When the rubber boat broke, we got our floats up in the water faster than we did in our training sessions.

“We do a debriefing after every operation. We talk about the problems we found or the things we could have done better. We check our protocols, and we improve them after each rescue.

“The thing is, there are no standard protocols for what we do. There’s no agency in the world training anyone in how to save over 100 people falling into the water at the same time.

“None of this is supposed to happen. There shouldn’t be boats sailing with over 100 people with no life jackets, without a radio, without flares to see them at night, with no-one trained in lifesaving.

“These rubber boats, they shouldn’t be sailing.

“But, you know, you cannot avoid feeling some level of guilt over what happened, of thinking that you could maybe have done something better. But the thing is, in this case, no-one is feeling like we could have done better.

“Those who drowned did so because there were too many people on the boat, and we were too few.”

Once everyone was out of the water and on the Open Arms, the doctors and the crew saw to the medical needs of the rescued; disinfected their hands and feet; provided them with food, water, blankets and a face mask; took their temperature, and recorded their age, nationality, gender, and with whom they travelled.

Luckily, only two of the rescued tested positive for Covid. Unfortunately, while the crew was busy doing all of this disaster struck again.

“We were not even finished with the second rescue when we had to perform another one.

“At the same time we were waiting for a medical evacuation of the baby, his mother and a guy who had really serious burns on his legs from the mixture of fuel and saltwater.

“Just at the moment when we were about to launch the third rescue, the baby’s heart stopped.”

Protracted stand-offs with the Italian and Maltese authorities has become the norm for NGO ships following a rescue. This is despite the fact that international maritime law requires MRCCs to take charge of rescues in their SAR zones and provide the rescued with a safe port to disembark in.

But for most of this and last year, NGO ships have been kept waiting at sea for days with hundreds of rescued on board while European states squabble over who will take them in.

The Open Arms’ previous mission was kept at sea for 10 days without a port. This time, however, it only took three before Italy took charge.

Llado believes the media attention this mission generated helped speed things up.

“When you have a dead baby and you have the powerful images we got from the journalists on board, it’s more complicated for the authorities to ignore us.

“When you compare the response time from the authorities on this mission compared with the last, it’s been quite fast. But not as fast as it should. The law says we should be given a safe port immediately after a rescue.

“We had the Frontex plane speak with us this time. When a Frontex plane tells you to go to these coordinates because there’s a boat in danger, that’s an order from a European authority. If they send you to do something and you do it, they can’t say afterwards that it’s not their problem.”

The Open Arms arrived into the port of Barcelona on December 1 after completing its 14-day quarantine off the coast of Sicily. The ship will refuel, restock, swap the crew and head back out to sea soon.

David Llado is SAR Coordinator for Open Arms. You can find out more on the Open Arms here and by following the organisation on Twitter on @openarms_found.

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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