Despite Aegean Rescuers' Best Efforts, Not All Migrants Are Saved
It's just before midnight on a February night when the crew of the Responder gets word from the Greek coast guard that a boat with migrants aboard is nearby. It's in trouble somewhere in Greek territorial waters in the Aegean Sea.
"There's a light, a flash," says Eugenio Miuccio, a 38-year-old Italian doctor, pointing to a flicker in the pitch-black sea. He and an Italian nurse, 27-year-old Roberto Pantaleo, pull on red life jackets as the ship heads toward the light.
Iain Brown, a volunteer rescue diver from Scotland, is also ready. He's listening, trying to make out people's voices. "We can hear them screaming before we see them," he says. "The boats they are in are so thin. We can hear them breaking up."
They're ready to jump into a small speedboat piloted by Dominic "Mimmo" Vella, a 44-year-old father of three from Malta and a member of the Responder's crew.
"If something happens and people fall in the water," Vella says, "with the big boat, we cannot go near them, so we go with the small ones."
The Responder arrives where the migrant boat is supposed to be. But there is no boat, no people. Just empty sea.
"False alarm," Brown says.
"We found nothing," Vella says. "So we're going to keep on patrolling."
The Responder, a 167-ft. search and rescue tug vessel has been patrolling these waters for the past two months. False alarms come with the territory, but the dangers for which the crew remains prepared are real.
The boat is leased by a Malta-based nonprofit called the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). An American businessman, Christopher Catrambone, and his Italian wife, Regina, started MOAS in early 2014 to help rescue asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy.
Then, last September, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The Syrian toddler had drowned trying to reach Greece with his family. The image of his lifeless body jolted the world's empathy.
Donations flooded into MOAS. The charity leased the Responder, hired a crew and recruited volunteers. The Responder arrived in the Aegean at the end of December. The two speedboats aboard are named after Alan and his 5-year-old brother, Galip, who also drowned in September.
Brown, the diver, heard about MOAS on the news. He's 51 and volunteers with the Coast Guard back home in Ayr, Scotland.
"I couldn't stand it anymore, sitting at home while kids were drowning here," he says. "So I [took] time off and came here. I can help. I understand the sea."
The Responder patrols a stretch of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and the tiny Greek islet of Agathonissi, just south of the larger island of Samos. The distance between Greece and Turkey is relatively short, as close as 8 miles here. But the sea can look deceptively calm to migrants.
"They could leave from a sheltered bay," says MOAS search and rescue operations officer John Hamilton, as he monitors a radar on deck. "Once they get out of this bay, they come across rough seas."
More than 400 people fleeing war and poverty have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the beginning of this year, according to the U.N. refugee agency. At least 311 have drowned in the Aegean, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The Responder has been backing up the Greek coast guard in the southern Aegean Sea, and has rescued 739 people here so far. And since 2014, MOAS crews have rescued nearly 12,000 people.
But the crew can't stop thinking about a boat that capsized on January 15.
"That night, we got a call that there was a boat," Vella says. "And when we arrived to where the boat was supposed to be, we didn't find the boat. But we found the people. They were screaming."
As the boat sank, people hung onto its blue-and-white hull, moaning loudly for help.
"It was so cold that night, so very cold," Vella says. "I prayed there were no kids in the water."
Miuccio, the Italian doctor, did too. He worried about hypothermia.
"Children and babies can only stay in such cold water for a few minutes," he says.
A diver jumped into the sea and swam to the people clinging to the hull. "Children? Children?" the diver screamed. "Babies?"
The first baby was a chubby-cheeked little boy, no more than 2-years-old. Miuccio, on the speedboat that night, remembers that the little boy's face was blue and he was foaming at the mouth. He had no pulse.
"I gave him CPR for 15 minutes," he says. "But nothing worked."
Pantaleo, the nurse, tried to revive another little boy, also to no avail. A third child, a 4-year-old girl, was also found dead.
Then two more children, a boy and a girl, arrived — unconscious but with a pulse.
"They responded immediately [after] CPR," Miuccio recalls. "They started crying, which is a good sign. We took off their wet clothes and immediately wrapped them in isothermal blankets."
Miuccio and Pantaleo warmed up the surviving children using hair dryers. The children changed into dry clothes and started to play. Vella visited them later in the "survivors room," where people rested on plastic-covered reclining chairs. Vella gave the children dolls, stuffed animals and picture books that his own kids had sent.
The crew rescued 23 people that night, nearly all of them Syrians and Iraqis.
Vella held the body of the chubby toddler. "I still remember his face," he says. "He was like an angel. Brown hair. Tights under his trousers."
He has a son the same age.
He placed the boy's body on a blanket next to the two other children who died. The parents didn't know. Vella had to tell them.
One of the mothers, then seven months pregnant, screamed as she picked up the lifeless bodies of her son and daughter. The other mother sobbed over her baby boy, the 2-year-old.
Vella knelt next to her. He'd held her son in his arms. Now he held the mother.
"I couldn't resist, I cried, because she was so much in pain," he says. "That pain is something you don't want to see, for sure. Because I believe that the children bury the parents, not the parents bury the children. If it happens to me, I don't know, life doesn't have sense anymore for me."
The Responder took the survivors to Pythagorio, a Greek port town on the island of Samos. It emerged that one of the survivors was Turkish. The others accused him of being a smuggler. They told the Greek Coast Guard that he didn't know how to navigate the boat and that's why it overturned. The man was arrested but denied he was a smuggler.
The three children who drowned that day are buried just outside a Greek Orthodox cemetery in the tiny village of Iraion, near Pythagorio. Dozens of other refugee children, most of them Syrian, are buried there, too.
Some, nameless, have graves marked by stone slabs with numbers. Others are marked with simple headstones bearing Quranic verses: "For us Allah suffices, and he is the best disposer of affairs. To God we belong, and to him we shall return." There are teddy bears on the graves.
The morning after the three children died in January, Mimmo Vella called his own kids back in Malta. He told them he loved them so much. He told them they were lucky to be safe at home.
As MOAS begins yet another patrol, he calls them again. His youngest son's tiny voice rises above the wind and the waves.
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