(Photography by Selene Magnolia)
Water does not wash away the smell of gasoline. It is everywhere on the lower floor of the Sea-Watch 3 after the rescue concluded last weekend at 8:30 a.m. local time. One hundred and two people were found in the middle of the sea, 31 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. They left the previous night around 2 a.m., the darkness illuminated by the full moon and a sea as flat as an oil stain.
There was no time for the rescue teams to think. At 5:40 a.m. the communication arrived from the radios that the migrants in danger are less than five miles away. Eleven minutes later, the two RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats) drop into the water from port and starboard. Dozens of eyes look at them from above, in silence. The same movement woke the 45 people rescued on Friday. This time, the 45 look at the same scene from the opposite side, mirrored. They point to the boat in distress and raise their thumbs to encourage the rescuers.
The two teams have one more member than the previous day. This was requested by Antonin Richard, who leads the second RHIB. Richard is 28 years old and has much experience: over the last five years he has participated in many humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean with various NGOs, from SOS Mediterranée to Doctors Without Borders and Sea Watch. Before gearing up, he aimed a pair of binoculars at the migrants’ boat and noticed a strange shape.
While the rescuers rotate around the dark gray dinghy to get a 360-degree overview, people stand up, cheer, shout. There is joy and too large a celebration. “It stinks of gasoline, let’s be careful,” Richard says immediately. Gasoline pours from the cans onto the bottom of the rafts. Evaporated gasoline causes a state of confusion when inhaled.
Of the six air chambers that keep the vehicle afloat, one is definitely deflated and the weight hangs to one side. The bow is also concave. It could be a sign that, within hours of departure, the plastic bottom reinforced with wooden planks is already broken. “Let’s take the dinghy,” Richard says. It is one of the many safety features of the Sea-Watch 3: seven different types of life jackets; two large plastic tubes with side handles tied together to prevent them from spinning; rubber rafts; inflatables that fill with air when in contact with water.
From the land, it’s easy to underestimate the complexity of the operation. Launching and retreating RHIBs while the ship is in motion. Making sure life jackets are worn and balanced properly. Transferring people from boat to boat, sometimes twice—all on a sea that never stills. During the operations they sometimes find people unconscious or who have been in the water for a long time, hypothermic. Each of the four phases of rescue (localization, identification of the vehicle, stabilization, transfer of people) has dozens of details and procedures. Crews must do the impossible: anticipate the unexpected.
“Man overboard!” The cry is sudden. One, two, three, four, five, six people fall from the deflated side. Your instinct is to rush to them immediately, but acting too quickly can be hazardous. The most important thing is to supply them with a life jacket. Retrieving one someone could set off a dangerous chain reaction with others diving in hoping to get on the RHIB first. With some help, the six climb into the raft.
Silence descends. Two hundred wide eyes stare at a blur on the horizon. We know what it is because of the radios. The people on the boat seem to know too. The P 300 patrol boat, owned by Libyans but manufactured in Italy, approaches full throttle entering the Maltese search and rescue area. From the deck of the Sea-Watch 3 they communicate that a Search And Rescue event is in progress, and to leave room for maneuver. The Libyans are not opposed. They approach, observe, take pictures. Meanwhile, the transshipment proceeds. The first to get on the RHIB are four women and four babies, then the children. One has a red pullover over a white and light blue checked shirt, dressed elegantly, as for a special occasion. He looks lonely and confused.
When all the castaways are safe on the ship, the rescuers return to the dinghy. They write “Sw3 27/02/202” in green spray paint on the sides. They sink the engine and cut the rubber to prevent traffickers from trying to fix the vehicle and reuse it, which would increase the risk of shipwreck. A breath of petrol spews out of the inner tub, lingering in the nose for hours after.
There are now 147 survivors on two of the three decks of Sea-Watch 3. Newcomers line up for hot tea and two energy bars. They come from different countries in Africa. Many of them speak French. Medical personnel do the triage. On the top floor, the people rescued the previous day rest or chat. Many are reading books. Suddenly they start singing and dancing. This happiness is not fueled by gasoline fumes. They raise a chorus: “Sea-Watch 3, Sea-Watch 3”. They are alive.
Around noon, the rescue teams receive a new call from the deck. They get dressed in a few minutes, but it is already late: the Libyan patrol boat Fezzan is already on the scene. It has intercepted boats in the past. On Friday it brought 151 people back to Tripoli. From the ship, the castaways watched with concern. “The first time I tried to cross the sea, they captured me, brought me back and put me in prison for a month, on bread and water,” says Adama, from the Ivory Coast. “Don’t worry,” says a girl from Sea-Watch. “They can’t come here.”