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The prevailing weather conditions on and around Christmas
Island in the early hours of 15 December 2010 were nothing short of atrocious.
The region was experiencing 40 knot winds, thunderstorms, and a wave height of
3–4 metres. Visibility was as low as 150 metres. It was, according to locals, amongst
the worst weather ever experienced on the island.
At about 5:40am a vessel now known as SIEV 221 was sighted
some distance from Rocky Point, off the coast of Christmas Island. The vessel
seemed to be under its own power as it moved towards Rocky Point in treacherous
Residents witnessing the tragedy unfolding before them,
hampered by the rain, wind and mist, called authorities and began to throw life
jackets into the sea in a desperate bid to help. Exactly how many people were
on the boat remains unknown, but rescuers recovered the bodies of 30 men, women
and children. Forty two passengers survived the incident – 22 men, nine women,
seven male and four female children.
Up to 20 others are still missing, presumed dead.
Eight family groups were identified in total. Three of the survivors are
The search and rescue effort was remarkable for its bravery
and selflessness. The committee walked around Rocky Point during its visit to
Christmas Island, and could not help but conclude that, even in good weather,
it is a dangerous, steep and slippery sheer rock face offering no opportunity
to land a vessel, nor launch an effective rescue operation. Indeed, the
committee stands in awe of those from the Australian Customs and Border
Protection, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Defence Force and
the Christmas Island community who provided assistance on the rocks that day.
Their courage in the face of very real personal risk certainly increased the
number of survivors. Their actions were nothing short of heroic.
The committee was also deeply impressed by the care offered
to survivors after their rescue. Triage facilities including clothing and
expert medical care were provided as soon as survivors were brought ashore and
it is clear that coordination between relevant government agencies was smooth,
professional and timely.
While the treacherous weather continued, rescuers turned
their attention to recovering the bodies of those who had perished. The process
of finding victims and bringing to shore was extremely harrowing, and obviously
exacted a heavy toll on the brave men and women who took part.
All the while, coordination continued with those on the
mainland, and resources such as additional staff and supplies were deployed
within hours. Mental health professionals counted among those who arrived to
help, and the committee was encouraged by evidence that psychological support
to those involved in the search, rescue, recovery and care of survivors has
been of a very high standard. Likewise, it is clear that survivors have
received the best possible support following the disaster, and the loss of many
of their loved ones. That care and support continues today.
Following its establishment in March 2011, the committee
received written submissions from a range of affected parties, including
survivors and their representatives, government agencies, and members of the
community. The committee agreed to accept submissions from survivors on a
confidential basis, but they have nonetheless played an important role in the
committee's deliberations. With minor exceptions, other submissions were
published and can be viewed online. These include the contributions of
government agencies such as the Department of Regional Australia, Australian
Federal Police, the Australian Defence Force, the Department of Immigration and
Citizenship, and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. These
agencies collectively provided the Commonwealth response to the tragedy as it
unfolded, and their comprehensive submissions serve as an important record of
the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, and the remarkable response to it.
The committee thanks all those who submitted to the inquiry.
We acknowledge that the feelings of trauma from the incident remain acute, and
that reliving 15 December 2010 and the days which followed can still
cause significant distress. We appreciate your generosity and patience in
dealing with our requests for information, and for answers to our questions.
Finally, the committee notes media reports in recent days
suggesting that a detainee on Christmas Island may have alerted Serco guards of
SIEV 221’s impending arrival three hours before the boat was first sighted.
Given that these media reports have emerged at such a late stage, the committee
did not take evidence on the issue during the course of its inquiry, and it
notes that the veracity of the claims remains untested. The committee wrote to
the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship seeking further
details of the claims and the Department's knowledge of them, and was told that
it learned of them only the day before they were published in the Australian,
and that further details were not yet at hand. It is apparent that the claims
will be dealt with by both the West Australian Coroner and the Joint Select
Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network.
Senator Gavin Marshall Mr
Michael Keenan MP
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