In September 2015 emergency planners from a number of British Overseas Territories gathered in Miami for an inter-island MRO planning workshop organised by the British Consulate: see ‘Mass rescue in the Caribbean’ in the October 2015 edition of LIFE LINE, which you can download from the newsletter archive.
The Falklands Islands / Islas Malvinas*, is a group far from the Caribbean indeed, but with similar concerns about the mass rescue operations (MRO) ‘capability gap’, as the IMRF refer to it and, just 7 weeks after the Miami workshop, the cruise ship, Le Boréal, got into difficulties on passage from Grave Cove to South Georgia. Andrew Almond-Bell, the recently appointed Director of Emergency Services for the Falkland Islands, who had attended the conference in Miami, has kindly shared his report with the IMRF.
In the early hours of Wednesday 18 November, the cruise ship Le Boréal, issued a MAYDAY call while about four miles north of the islands. Fire in the engine room had led to a complete loss of power, leaving the ship adrift in gale force conditions with a 3-4m swell running. There were 347 people aboard. Le Boréal’s master decided on an evacuation of passengers and non-essential crew.
It was immediately clear that a full-scale marine, air and land response would be required from the remote and sparsely inhabited islands. All the necessary authorities were alerted, and lines of communication were established. A situation report was received from MRCC Falmouth in the UK, who had received the initial distress alert, and, using AIS, a picture of the evolving incident was formulated. Island government, military and private sector assets available were identified and tasked. An initial landing point was established at Cape Dolphin, close to the scene. A C130 aircraft was appointed On Scene Coordinator. At 0440 Le Boréal advised that the passengers and crew had commenced evacuation to two lifeboats and two liferafts.
Three SAR and three passenger helicopters – a mix of military and civilian units – were available, and a fleet of emergency service vehicles and buses were despatched to Cape Dolphin.
Provision for the reception and care of people landed was being set up simultaneously, with a reception centre at Mount Pleasant. An environmental protection plan was also being set in place, but Le Boréal succeeded in anchoring two miles offshore, listing but stable. The fire was reported contained. The ship was subsequently towed to Mare Harbour.
Meanwhile the SAR helicopters winched people from Le Boréal’s deck and from the liferafts, to land them at Cape Dolphin. 78 people were brought to safety in this way. The passenger aircraft took them on to the reception centre. A warship, HMS Clyde, arrived on scene, but due to the sea state it was determined that it would be unsafe to attempt to take people aboard immediately.
Le Boréal’s sister ship, L’Austral, was also heading for the scene, with an ETA of 0900. For her to take the people on board from the lifeboats it was necessary to seek shelter in White Rock Bay. HMS Clyde escorted the lifeboats and L’Austral to the Bay, supplying water and fuel to the lifeboats on the way – no mean feat in itself in the prevailing conditions.
As is so often the case in mass rescue operations confusion arose over numbers of people recovered. Those landed by helicopter at Cape Dolphin could be carefully accounted for, but there were two versions of the ship’s manifest in circulation, and transfer of people into L’Austral was ‘uncontrolled’ in this respect. Aerial and land searches of the incident area and nearby coastline had to be carried out as a result, and it was some 18 hours before it could be confirmed that everyone had been accounted for. L’Austral landed the 258 people she had recovered at Port Stanley.
The evacuees where accounted for on arrival against the available manifest. They were provided with welfare facilities comprising medical screening, washing facilities, food, clothing, companionship, and information. Some couples had been separated during the evacuation process which, understandably, resulted in heightened anxiety. 13 evacuees were treated at the medical centre for superficial injuries. Access to a means of communication to contact family and friends at home was provided and gratefully received.
Accommodation prior to repatriation was a challenge. There is limited hotel space in the islands and, although there was some military and oil exploration company accommodation available, not all could be housed in these ways. The local radio station and Facebook were used to broadcast appeals for assistance, and the population responded admirably, providing clothing and food as well as beds.
Overall, says Andrew, "SAR operations can be considered to have been successful. The whole complement of 347 passengers and crew were accounted for, and there were no significant injuries. Indeed there were only minor injuries – minor smoke inhalation, a sprain and small cuts that necessitated plasters. This was testament to the professionalism and resilience, reinforced by training, of everyone involved."
Andrew’s report contains a very useful ‘lessons learned’ section. We will provide a summary of this in the October edition of LIFE LINE.
* A dispute exists between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).
Photo Credit: Courtesy of MOD (Crown Copyright)