Press Conference – Sydney

Topics: Search and Rescue Operation

JASON CLARE: Good morning, and thanks for coming along so early this morning. Last night I was at the Boarder Protection Command Operation Centre where I was briefed on this search and rescue effort. I’ve been briefed again this morning by the Commander in charge of the search and rescue effort, and I’m in a position now to give you the latest information that I have.

Can I place this caveat on the information. Experience in the past indicates that information is subject to change and further details will be available over the course of the day, so the information that I give you may change through the course of the day, and through the course of the next few days.

AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, is coordinating the Australian search and rescue effort for the vessel. The vessel was located approximately 109 nautical miles south of Indonesia, and approximately 110 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island.

Initial indications suggest that there were approximately 200 people on the vessel. Early reporting is that the passengers are all male. One survivor is reported to be a 13-year-old boy. The remainder are reported to be all adults.

At this stage, we have been able to rescue 110 survivors. Three deceased adult men have now been recovered. Some of the survivors have sustained injuries. The surviving passengers are now being transported to Christmas Island, where they’ll continue to receive medical care.

I’m now going to take you through a chronology of the information that’s been provided to me this morning by Border Protection Command.

On Tuesday, 19 June, AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre, received calls from a vessel indicating it was experiencing difficulties at about 10pm. There was no indication given in that call about where the vessel was located.

AMSA at that time advised both BASARNAS and Customs and Border Protection. At about 1.30am in the early hours of Wednesday morning, eastern standard time, AMSA received further calls from the vessel, indicating that it was experiencing difficulties. At that stage, the vessel reported that it was 38 nautical miles south of the Indonesian mainland.

AMSA advised the vessel to return to Indonesia. AMSA advised Indonesian Search and Rescue at that time, BASARNAS, who took responsibility for the response.

At that time, information was also passed to the Custom’s Indonesian counterpart.

At approximately 3.15pm on Wednesday, a Customs and Border Protection surveillance aircraft undergoing routine surveillance detected a vessel that was suspected of being the source of these distress calls. The vessel was travelling in a southerly direction, and there were no visual signs of distress reported.

AMSA continued to receive phone calls from the vessel on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening, Border Protection Command vessels at Christmas Island were prepared to respond if assistance was requested.

Yesterday morning, Border Protection Command received additional information that raised concerns about the safety of the vessel. This information was passed to AMSA and to the Indonesian Search and Rescue Authority. The Border Protection Command patrol boats were moved north of Christmas Island in anticipation of a possible search and rescue response.

A Customs and Border Protection Command surveillance flight departed Christmas Island just after 1pm eastern standard time yesterday, and was specifically tasked to locate the vessel.

At approximately 3pm yesterday, the surveillance aircraft detected the capsized vessel, approximately 110 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island. This information was then passed to AMSA. AMSA issued a request for assistance to merchant vessels in the area, and offered its assistance to the Indonesian Search and Rescue Authority.

The surveillance aircraft continued to monitor the situation. A RAAF P3 aircraft was then diverted to attend the scene. It arrived at the scene at approximately 5pm, and commenced dropping life rafts. Shortly after that, at about 5.40pm eastern standard time, a merchant vessel arrived, shortly followed by two more merchant vessels, responding to AMSA’s call for assistance, and commenced rescue efforts.

At approximately 7.20pm eastern standard time last night, Navy patrol boats Larrakia and Wollongong arrived at the location and commenced recovery operations. An AMSA aircraft and the Air Force’s P3 aircraft provided further assistance throughout the night.

Now here is the latest information. The search for survivors continues today. AMSA is in charge of the search and rescue operation. Larrakia is the current Navy patrol boat in command in the search area. Once HMAS Wollongong has completed the transfer of rescued passengers to Christmas Island, it will immediately return to the search area, to recommence rescue operations.

Four more merchant vessels are on their way to the area to respond to requests from AMSA, two will be there very shortly, two more are expected around about 11 o’clock and 2.15pm today.

Three aircraft will provide ongoing aerial support throughout the day. AMSA’s aircraft, the Air Force’s P3 aircraft, and Customs and Border Protection’s Dash 8 aircraft will provide that support.

So I think you get a sense of the size and the scale of this search and rescue effort. The objective is to save as many lives as possible. We’re still in that critical window where more lives could be saved.

The advice I have is that the water temperature is 29 degrees, the sea state is sea state three, and that people can survive out there for up to 36 hours, if they have either life jackets, or they have debris to hold onto.

So we’re in that critical window, where there’s a chance where more lives could be saved, and that obviously is where my focus is right now.

Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: The life vests and the life rafts that were dropped, is there enough for the 200 people?

JASON CLARE: The life rafts that were dropped from the P3 yesterday afternoon were able to carry up to around about 30 or 40 people. I understand that they were used.

When the Dash 8 arrived on the scene yesterday afternoon we found about 40 people that were on top of the upturned hull and other people that were holding onto debris as much as three nautical miles away from the scene.

There were lifejackets that were on the boat that was on its way from Indonesia to Australia, and obviously the people that we’ve been able to pick up last night have been picked up by the merchant vessel as well as by our patrol boats that arrived on the scene.

QUESTION: And do you know if there are any more children on board?

JASON CLARE: No. The information we have is that all of the people on the boat were male except for one 13-year-old boy that has been rescued. All other people on the boat were, we understand, all adults.

QUESTION: Why wasn’t there an attempt to find the vessel as soon as you received that first distress call?

JASON CLARE: I think the chronology of events that I’ve read out shows that Australian search and rescue authorities and Australian border protection authorities have acted very proactively. I’ve taken you through the events.

As soon as we were given the information that there was a boat out there we contacted Indonesian search and rescue authorities AMSA contacted customs and border protection authorities.

Our planes flew over the area to identify where the boat was. It identified the boat that we think was in distress. It showed no visual signs of distress but based on the information we’ve received our boats and our planes were prepositioned to check and see if that boat was okay. As soon as we identified a capsized boat Australian authorities took the action they did yesterday.

I’m not going to second guess today the action they have taken other than to say it looks like they took proactive steps.

QUESTION: What about when you sighted the vessel, why wasn’t closer inspection done to see if it was, in fact, signs of distress at a closer look?

JASON CLARE: The advice I have from customs and border protection is that the men and women that were in that Dash 8 observed the boat yesterday or Wednesday afternoon around about five o’clock, I think I said, and observed no visual signs of distress but, nevertheless, took proactive steps on Wednesday evening to prepare in case a rescue mission was required.

QUESTION: There was a bit of conjecture about whether there was one boat, two boats, and there’s still a boat in distress. What can you tell us about that?

JASON CLARE: Yes, thank you very much for that question. Last night when I was at Border Protection Command’s operations centre there was information that another boat was in distress, potentially off the coat of East Timor. That search and rescue effort has now been called off. The information I have is that a report of a vessel in distress was received. We sent a Dash 8 out there to respond. The plane didn’t locate any vessels that displayed any signs of distress. It appears a vessel had sent out an alert by pressing a beacon but that vessel had no signs of distress. That’s now been called off.

QUESTION: Australian authorities informed Indonesian authorities on Sunday that there was a boat in distress. Is that the same boat that’s being helped now?


QUESTION: Where is that boat?

JASON CLARE: The information that I have is that Australian authorities contacted Basarnas late on Tuesday night.

QUESTION: Was that because they’re not there on Sunday?

JASON CLARE: I don’t have information about that but happy to follow that up.

QUESTION: Just back to when it was first sighted and there were no obvious signs of distress, did AMSA suspect that those calls had been, for want of a better word, tricks to try – as they tried to reach Australia?

JASON CLARE: Well, no, you treat every single phone call seriously and I think the chronology of events that I’ve provided you demonstrates that Australian authorities have taken all of those phone calls seriously.

The point I made was that when that phone call occurred on Wednesday morning at about 1.30 in the morning and said that the boat was experiencing distress, and was 38 nautical miles south of Indonesia. AMSA told the people on the boat at that time to return to Indonesia. That was very good advice then. I think that demonstrates the level of proactivity in the work that Australian officials have taken over the course of the last 48 hours or so.

QUESTION: So there’s evidence that they were on their way back Indonesia?

JASON CLARE: No. No. That was Wednesday morning where they were 38 nautical miles south of Indonesia. When we located the capsized boat that was more than 100 nautical miles south of Indonesia on its way to Christmas Island.

QUESTION: Indonesian authorities say that they were confused that there might be two boats. Has there been [inaudible]?

JASON CLARE: No, as I said in answer to another question, we had information about another potential boat off the coast of East Timor. That information has now concluded that there is not another boat in distress.

Australian officials and Indonesian officials work very closely and I think the chronology of events that I’ve read out for you demonstrates the close work between AMSA and Basarnas but also the close work that’s being done between customs and Indonesian customs authorities.

QUESTION: Where will they be taken?

JASON CLARE: Christmas Island.

QUESTION: Do you believe the Indonesian authorities could have done more when the boat was just 38 nautical miles away?

JASON CLARE: I’ve got no reason to believe that. The Indonesian authorities took responsibility for the search and rescue effort because it was in Indonesian waters. All of the advice is that the work between the Australian agencies and the Indonesian agencies was very good.

Obviously, as is the case whenever there are deaths at sea, there’ll be a full investigation to make sure that everything that should have been done was done.

QUESTION: It looks like the boat continued to sail down…


QUESTION: …even though it was told to turn around?


QUESTION: How much [indistinct]?

JASON CLARE: Well, it was 38 nautical miles when AMSA told it to turn back to Indonesia and it was over 100 nautical miles south of Indonesia when we found it capsized.

Any more questions? Thanks very much.