A boat carrying up to 100 asylum seekers crashed into cliffs at Christmas Island in terrible weather yesterday, killing 28 people, including women and children. It’s a heartbreaking tale, with graphic photos and videos showing people desperately trying keep themselves afloat as the boat smashed into debris on the cliffs.

The navy managed to rescue 44 people — all Iraqis and Iranians — from the waters, with 11 of those being under 18. The number of dead could rise as bodies are still being collected.

Christmas Island locals gathered on the cliffs attempting to help the asylum seekers, throwing life jackets against the strong winds. They provided deeply distressing first-person accounts of the tragedy.

Dive shop owner Simon Prince recounted: “At first it looked like they were OK… The backwash from the cliffs was keeping it away from the rocks. They were just being washed backwards and forwards”. There was a really sickening crack, he told The Australian: “It was something I’ll never forget. Next thing you know, the boat heads away. It didn’t break up immediately . . . it was repeatedly smashed into the cliffs.”

“It was near cyclone conditions — there was rain, wind and the ocean all pounding against the cliff. It would have been suicidal for us to dive in and it was so frustrating not being able to do more to help… Even the conditions up on the cliff were dangerous for the volunteers trying to help. The navy was busy with other asylum seekers on the other side of the island so it was just us there to try to help them,” Prince told The West Australian.

“I saw a person dying in front of me and there was nothing we could do to save them,” Christmas Island councillor Kamar Ismai told The Age. “Babies, children maybe three or four years old, they were hanging on to bits of timber, they were screaming ‘Help, help, help’. We were throwing lifejackets out to them but many of them couldn’t swim a few metres to reach them.”

Another local Mick Tassone said: “I saw a lot of things that could have been people… It’s very hazy and raining. I wouldn’t doubt a lot of them were bodies.

“By the time I got down there and saw what was going on, there was debris and people everywhere with life jackets on and so forth but a lot of screaming and carrying on,” electrician Michael Foster told the ABC. “With the horrendous seas as they are, the only thing that people could do from the mainland was really throw life jackets back into the water or just advise them to swim away from the rocks.

“There was one very small child with a lifejacket on floating face down in the water for a very long time … clearly dead,” Prince told The Sydney Morning Herald.

The pundits were quick to comment. “The Gillard Government has blood on its hands. Prime Minister Julia Gillard should resign,” proclaims Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun.

“No politicians wanted to be seen to be taking political advantage from the tragic sinking of the people-smuggling vessel. But there will be a political cost, and in every sense the Labor government can expect to pay that cost,” declares Dennis Shanahan in The Australian.

Why was this boat allowed to get so close to those cliffs, asks David Marr in the The Age? “The cliffs of Christmas Island are killers. Everyone who lives there, trades with the island and patrols its waters knows that when the wind is blowing onshore no one can land in Flying Fish Cove perhaps for weeks at a time. The key mystery of this tragedy is how that boat was allowed near those cliffs in that filthy weather.”

Richard Farmer offers some advice to PM Gillard on The Stump this morning:

When a Prime Minister returns early from holidays you can be sure that the primary reason is damage control. There is absolutely nothing that Julia Gillard personally can do to make the tragic situation on the shores of Christmas Island any better. Her task is purely and simply to try and ensure that yesterday’s deaths do not revive the issue of boat people in a way that seriously damages the standing of her government.

A good starting point for her reading this morning would be the latest WikiLeak cables published in the Fairfax press and in particular the advice given to her predecessor Kevin Rudd by Peter Khalil who was his foreign policy/national security adviser when in Opposition. As American diplomats reported back to Washington:

“In opposition, he advised Rudd to attack the amount of money spent on the Pacific Solution, but this was vetoed by senior party figures. Khalil predicted Rudd will ‘get hit’ by the public on this issue … he contended internal politics made it virtually impossible for Rudd to significantly strengthen border protection laws.”

In another leaked WikiLeaks cable reported in The Age today: “…an unnamed ‘key Liberal Party strategist’ told US diplomats in November 2009 that the issue of asylum seekers was ‘fantastic’ for the Coalition and ‘the more boats that come the better’.”

Tragedies like these don’t show well for either side of politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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