Emergency rescue worker speaks: refugee solidarity on the high seas

Issue 

The fatal explosion on board a boat carrying 47 Afghan refugees in April created a storm of controversy in Australian politics and the media.

The navy had intercepted the vessel in Australian waters and was taking it to Christmas Island when it exploded on April 16. Five people were killed, but many more were badly injured.

Thirty-four casualties, many with trauma injuries and severe burns, were taken to the FPSO Front Puffin, an oil facility northwest of the Australian mainland. They were later transported by air to Australian hospitals.

But missing from the flood of reports of mass casualties and the navy rescue operation was another group of people who worked tirelessly in a selfless humanitarian effort to keep the victims alive and get them to hospital — the workers of the Front Puffin.

In a time when refugees are denied a human face by the corporate media and politicians and shamefully labelled criminals or terrorists, the human solidarity of that day was lost amid the anti-refugee fearmongering.

Maritime Union of Australia delegate and IR John "Madge" McGartland was there and took part in the emergency rescue effort. He said the seafarers did everything possible for their fellow human beings tragically afflicted at sea. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's Jay Fletcher.

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An alarm went off — the emergency muster alarm — and we all gathered in the muster room where we always go, because it could be anything, someone falling over the side or whatever. Basically the manager told us there'd been an explosion on an asylum seeker boat and they were a half-hour away.

So everyone was given their duties and told what to expect. And it was pretty much flat-out for the next 12 hours. It was pretty insane, a pretty intense afternoon.

The navy ship was covered all along the deck with the patients, the refugees, the injured.

An area on the deck was basically turned into a triage. We set up our area under the helicopter deck, and that's because you've got all the shade. Obviously it's very hot where we were, it's about 40°C everyday.

We got all the mattresses off our bunks and put them all on the top deck and that's what the patients, the refugees, laid on.

We just used our crane and brought the medical supplies on first because obviously we were limited to what we had. And then we started bringing on the casualties. We ferried the casualties from the navy ship up onto our deck and moved them on trolleys to the poop deck.

And that's where the navy personnel started to treat them. There were 34 [refugees] and they could only come on one at a time. We proceeded to do that for about five hours.

The feeling on board was, no one questioned where they came from or who they were or anything like that. Purely from a humanitarian point of view, and it's the rule of the sea anyway, you always help someone in distress because out there they get nothing else.

Everyone did above and beyond. Down on the medical side of things blokes were praying for them or with them, and some of our crew members were really comforting, and the military had nothing but praise for them.

No one ever wants to be part of that, but I'm very proud and glad that I was part of it and it went so well. No one else died either, which is pretty major.

On the news the other day [when the Afghans were granted refugee status there was footage of] a few of them dancing. They all had the burn suits, you could see it on their arms, but one of the blokes that was sitting there was the one that I thought was gonna go.

He just looked like he was in a terrible state and I thought "if anyone dies it'll be this bloke", because it looked like there was nothing left in him, that's what I thought. He was very badly burnt. But he was there the other day and he was pretty happy with it all. That was pretty good.

Obviously their passage was hard. Some of them spent 10 years trying to get here, three or four years somewhere else and then they get across to Indonesia and spend two or three trying to organise to get across from there. It would seem like a lifetime,0 and to get that close and end up in that situation — they must have been through the full range of emotions.

When the media first came out, it didn't even mention the part we were involved in, you know, getting the refugees on to the vessel.

That's the worst thing about it. You think about the Tampa in 2001, a boatload of refugees, they were never given names or faces they were just a boatload.

What people forget is it doesn't matter where you come from — you're someone's son, daughter, husband, brother, sister.

What they don't see is there might be a bloke or a woman on there who might have lost three of their own kids. Or he's got four kids and a wife over there that he's trying to get a better life for and he's sacrificing absolutely everything to try and give them a head-start.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it doesn't register. We're born here and people haven't seen it or can't relate to it. It's something that happens "over there". People just can't put a face to it, or they don't want to.

No one even said, "are they Indonesian?" or "are they Iraqis?", that didn't even come into it. All we knew was that at that point in time there were five dead and there were 34 coming with a range from slightly injured to severely burned.

I was disgusted with Howard when he set up refugee detention centres on Christmas Island, Nauru, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. That to me was just terrible, especially when there were women and kids getting split up. I was disgusted at being a part of that, because I'm Australian.

People just need to be treated decently, I'd like to think that if I ended up in another country under whatever circumstances, I'd be given a fair go. That's bloody human nature, that's what it's all about.