On 3 October a heavily overcrowded fishing vessel caught fire, capsized and sank off Lampedusa. She was carrying people trying to cross to Europe from North Africa. 366 of them, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, died. There were 155 survivors. It was the worst but by no means the only such tragedy in the Mediterranean in recent times. For once, the global news media paid attention.
Back in August the ferry St Thomas Aquinas was in collision with a cargo ship, Sulpicio Express Siete, off Cebu in the Philippines. The ferry sank quickly. Of the 870 people believed to have been on board, at least 80 were killed and another 40 were missing, probably trapped in the wreck. 750 people, however, were saved.
In November Typhoon Haiyan caused devastating damage in the Philippines and other countries in the region, resulting in a mass rescue operation on a much greater scale. Quite rightly the news media focussed on this catastrophe, and an international rescue and recovery operation continues. But the loss of St Thomas Aquinas was less well reported. And she was not alone.
In Indonesia there were two ferry accidents within two days of each other: the Express Bahari 8C caught fire on 22 August off Tanjung Pandan, with the reported loss of 7 lives. 184 people were rescued. Then, on 24 August, Sandar Jaya capsized, also off Sumatra, killing at least four. 21 people were rescued but, as is so often the case, the number of people aboard the ferry was uncertain.
In September another boat carrying asylum-seekers sank, this time off Java. Over 70 are feared dead, and only 25 reported rescued.
In October a large dugout, carrying scores of people and a large amount of merchandise, broke up on the Niger river near Koubi. 210 survivors were reported but, with over 70 people confirmed dead, it was one of Mali's worst river disasters. "In the future," said a government minister, "These canoes will have to be equipped with life vests, fire extinguishers and lights for night-time navigation..."
The awful stories continue to be told, sometimes catching the world's attention; but all too often not. If causes are addressed at all, they are addressed too late for those already lost, and sometimes it is doubtful that the action promised will be fully carried out once the brief flare of publicity dies away.
The IMRF cannot address all these issues in our Mass Rescue Operations project, but we are determined to highlight the continuing and usually avoidable losses of life – and to support initiatives such as the Safe Affordable Ferry design competition.
We also note, and highly commend, the rescue efforts of our colleagues responding to these disasters around the world. Until these preventable accidents are prevented, the need to share such rescue experience remains.