Crew Honoured For Refugee Rescue Role

Front Puffin crew were recognised in Darwin on Monday by Australian Customs and Border Protection, Northern Command for their role in rescuing the injured asylum seekers off Ashmore Reef, Western Australia.

Front Puffin crew were recognised in Darwin in May by Australian Customs and Border Protection, Northern Command, for their role in rescuing the injured asylum seekers off Ashmore Reef, Western Australia.

The fishing vessel was intercepted by HMAS Albany on April 15, before exploding and sinking the next day, killing several people and critically injuring dozens. The fire is subject to an inquiry.

In a complex rescue operation, the 34 asylum seekers were first transferred from HMAS Childers to offshore FPSO Front Puffin - a three-hour round trip on April 16.

MUA delegate IR John (Madge) McGartland helped lift the injured one by one from the navy vessels on board.

"I rode the crane down to attach the stretchers," he said. "We used what's called a Billy Pugh, which is an offshore personnel transfer device. It took hours and three of us took turns to be lowered from our deck to the deck of the Childers.

"There was a heap of people we needed to get off until they could be airlifted out," said John. "We used the crane to pick them up on stretchers and set them up on the poop deck which was transformed into our medical or triage centre."

John said the crew pulled spare mattresses out of their bunks to make the 34 injured comfortable and assist the couple of doctors from the navy ship look after them. The first helicopter arrived around four hours later with extra medical staff. The last of the injured were flown out before midnight.

"Every one of the crew did a fantastic effort from skipper down," said John. "The whole working deck was turned into a hospital. You couldn't believe what you saw. Ropes were strung from one side to the other to hang the drips off. It was pretty full on. The injuries were pretty horrific. But everyone stood up to it. Everyone did fantastic."

Mike Stafford, the Operations Manager for Aibel, met with the crew in Darwin on Monday to pass on his thanks to everyone: "Our training and the professionalism of everyone, ensured that the injured personnel were treated with the utmost care and respect, and it was a credit to everyone involved."

The crew were also honoured with medals by the Northern Command.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said the asylum seeker rescue reinforced the importance of Australia's maritime industry to Australia's security needs.

"Whether it is the offshore or shipping industry, ensuring that it meets our high national standards in regulation and competency, this incident demonstrates again the critical importance of the industry. It is an effective component of our national defence and security, and the Rudd Government support of its expansion and renewal is as important as any other single policy."

The National Secretary said the vessel's support role was also a major humanitarian effort true to maritime tradition and the law of the sea which calls on ships to support other vessels, crew and their passengers in distress. This is an important departure from the Howard years and the Tampa debacle when the Norwegian vessel was denied access to Australian ports after rescuing refugees off the west coast in August 2001.

The MUA members on board the Puffin for the rescue mission were Chief IR Gavin Bennett, IRs John 'Madge' McGartland, Mark Taylor, Jeff Carroll, Jannik Hansen, caterers Chief cook Richard De Safere, 2nd cook Steve Hulm, Chief Steward Ian Lamey and steward Jimmy Best.

The union also received special thanks from OMS general manager Ian Del Rosso for their efforts and compassion in the handling of the refugee emergency.

"I could not begin to imagine how difficult the situation would have been offshore, however the repatriation was completed successfully and the operation could not have occurred without the full support and effort of the crew offshore," he wrote.

"I have been advised that everyone was outstanding in their efforts and please be assured that OMS offers the crew our full support."

Meanwhile at the Australian Maritime Defence Council meeting in Sydney last week, defence and customs officials reported that a number of offshore facilities had agreed to host defence and border patrol communications equipment, which expands greatly the communications coverage of maritime security and border protection agencies.

Full story next MWJ

See the photos of the rescue at the Defence Force website