UK coastguard failed to prevent migrant drowning disaster: Independent
UK Coastguard staff members put in 20-hour days leading up to the disaster that claimed 27 lives in the Channel drowning incident a year ago.
A source told the Independent that mistakes were made during the search and rescue effort following the mass drowning tragedy in the Channel a year ago by a UK coastguard team that was overworked and working up to 20 hours per day.
At least 27 lives were lost on November 24, 2021, and five bodies remain missing.
Following the initial rescue call, it took the UK and French coastguards 12 hours to arrive, and the authorities were at odds over who was to blame. All but two of the passengers had drowned and perished from exposure by the time rescue ships and aircraft arrived on the site.
A source from HM Coastguard who was speaking for the first time about the circumstances that led up to the unfortunate event a year ago said the staff members were overworked and working exceptionally long shifts, frequently without breaks.
“No one comes to work with the intention of letting people die, but, in extremely challenging circumstances, mistakes get made,” the source said.
“Yes, 27 people died, but 27,000-plus people have made it. I’d take a 0.1 percent success rate of survivability. We will never be able to save everybody – no emergency service in the world can say that."
“We’d been working 20-hour days sometimes – really long periods with no breaks. Everybody was tired and frustrated. You can see people were fractious and snapping at each other."
“You have to make quick decisions and yeah, of course, mistakes get made, when you’re working under that level of pressure.”
Charity activists have for long warned that unless the government established safe routes, it was only a matter of time before such tragic deaths occurred in the English Channel.
An unanswered call
The first distress call to the French coastguard was made just before 2.15 am, according to call records provided to lawyers by the French authorities as part of the ongoing investigation. Around 3.15 am, the boat capsized.
Shortly afterward, at 3.30 am, a passenger reported that some of the people were in the water, and the answer he received from French authorities was shockingly, “Yes, but you are in English waters, Sir.”
More than 20 distress calls were made by those on board between 3.40 and 7.30 am local time. When the rescue crews arrived at the scene at around 2:00 pm, all but two passengers had perished in drownings or from exposure.
Over the course of the night, the UK coastguard, which is responsible for logging emergency calls and coordinating search and rescue missions in the Channel, continued to deny that the dinghy was in British waters, repeatedly telling the passengers to call the French coastguard. In the meantime, the records from France suggested that the boat entered British waters at 2.30 am.
What happened the night of November 24?
The Independent has learned that 10 coastguard personnel handled calls in the Dover control room on the evening of November 24, 2021.
The task of interpreting the tides, the weather, and the locations of small boats fell to search mission coordinators, who were under the command of a maritime tactical commander.
The British coastguard allegedly tried to call one of the passengers at around 2:45 am, but instead heard a French dial tone, according to an email exchange between French and British officials. According to reports, they came to the conclusion that they were not to blame because the boat was likely still in French waters.
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As the incident developed, Steven Martin from the charity Channel Rescue, which keeps track of maritime activity, received screenshots from those on board the sinking dinghy, many of whom had shared their live location on WhatsApp to demonstrate that they were in British waters.
Martin is currently a part of the continuing marine accident inquiry and has given attorneys ample proof that the French and British coastguards were aware of the mayday calls but that a rescue vessel didn't arrive at the spot for 12 hours after the initial distress call.
Search and rescue experts, insufficient capacity, and unsuitable vessels are the main problems that need to be fixed for the UK coastguard to operate more efficiently, according to Search and rescue expert Matthew Schanck.
“We need more search and rescue vessels in the Channel. It’s not fair for the coastguard to rely on volunteers, Border Force vessels, and chartered wind farm boats that are not built or equipped for this purpose. The government needs to start investing in resources – shore-based resources like call handlers, helicopters, and more appropriate search and rescue boats in the water.”
He added, “We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and hope this is going to get better.”
Martin blames the government, which he believes has not done enough to address the systemic problems in managing increasing numbers of small boat arrivals.
“The Channel is more militarized now than it was this time last year. Now there are warships patrolling the Channel, which don’t function as search and rescue vessels – they can’t pick people up if they’re in the water."