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Apr 18, 2009

On this day: 17th April
2009 - RAN Rescue Mission: Explosion on Asylum Seekers' Boat; ADF personnel on board at the time  17 April 2009

BARRY LEAROYD [pictured at left] steamed into Darwin yesterday in command of HMAS Albany at 1pm with 13 wounded men, two corpses and searing images in his mind. At 6.15am local time, in waters off Ashmore Reef, Lieutenant Commander Learoyd saw the explosion from the deck of the patrol boat.

"There were multiple people in the water, some ADF people and some UAs (unauthorised arrivals)," he said. "I did witness the explosion and a number of people were thrown into the water. I really can't characterise how big it was. It was certainly an explosion large enough to throw people into the water."

Something "untoward" had happened aboard the vessel, and a boarding party from HMAS Childers issued a high-threat alert to its mothership and the Albany. The nature of that alert has not yet been characterised for the benefit of the public, but it appears what Commander Learoyd had considered a calm and controlled situation aboard the illegal entry vessel changed rapidly shortly after breakfast was served there. 

When the rescue boats moved among those who had been blown off the boat, no one was screaming, Commander Learoyd said.

"The sounds that I heard - actually, it was very interesting. It was very quiet. My people, Childers people, in the sea boats, went about their job very professionally and were able to get everyone out of the water as quickly as they could. Unfortunately we weren't able to recover everyone alive. One story that sticks in my mind, though, one of the people who was injured, an ADF person, was able to get in one of my sea boats and come to my boat and provide support to the injured people. The scenes were pretty horrific and the way both boats responded to the incident was absolutely sensational. We had a number of people injured badly with burns, and certainly there were two persons that we recovered were deceased."

The Childers and Albany sent out two sea boats apiece and the Customs vessel permanently stationed at Ashmore Reef arrived to assist soon afterwards. Some of the wounded spoke English, some didn't. Commander Learoyd said the asylum seekers were from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Commodore David Gwyther, head of Northern Command, said the injured ADF personnel were all "walking", having suffered only sprains, cuts and abrasions. "Every single one of those guys and girls wanted to stay with their team and finish the job," he said.

It is unclear at this point whether the four ADF personnel were on board the vessel at the time of the explosion or departing from it. Commander Gwyther said the boatpeople's vessel, which was powered by a diesel engine, was not under tow at the time.  

HMAS Childers - like the Albany an Armidale-class patrol boat assigned to border protection - arrived in Darwin at 4pm yesterday with one body on board. Commander Gwyther said the bodies were treated according to Muslim custom as best the crew could manage. Northern Territory Assistant Police Commissioner Mark McAdie said some of the injured would be held in a detention centre once they were declared fit by Royal Darwin Hospital. The illegal vessel was resting in 250m of water and was a crime scene - even though it was not clear any act of criminality had taken place, he said. The law did not require Territory police to treat the deceased as deaths in custody, he said. The ADF personnel have begun giving statements and the asylum seekers were expected to be questioned last night. Royal Darwin Hospital's Dr Notaras said 21 of the injured people had been admitted to the hospital, but 4-7 were expected to be taken to Perth. [these numbers increased the following day]

Commander Gwyther said he considered the operation a success. "It's a pretty amazing effort to be in the middle of the Arafura Sea and less than 24 hours later the casualties are receiving some of the best medical attention in Australia."
RAN promo' video:
RAN -Royal Australian Navy; ADF -A? (Australian or Armed?) Defence Forces
[Article The Australian]


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Jenny Dooley
, 3, 2 children
Eastlakes, SW, Australia
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