While figures are still unclear as to how many survived the Christmas Island boat wreck — latest figures say that 30 have died, while 42 have been rescued — what is clear is that, in the cold light of day, there will be political ramifications over the tragedy.

Vivid images of the wrecked boat sinking off the cliffs of Christmas Island provided a stark picture of the desperate, and often futile, measures people will go to to flee persecution. In the near future asylum seeker policy is going to come under the magnifying glass once again, but probably not as people are still being pulled out of the water.

But on Wednesday afternoon, as the rescue operation was in full swing, media commentators from both sides of politics were searching for someone to blame over the tragedy.

Below is a timeline of the tragic events that took place on Wednesday December 15, with official times for the rescue provided by the Australian Customs and Border Protection. All times are approximate and Australian eastern daylight savings time.

  • 9:48am — Border Protection Command was notified that a vessel had been sighted approximately 200 metres from Rocky Point, Christmas Island.
  • 10:00am HMAS Pirie was tasked to respond to the sighting.
  • 10:31am — Australian Federal Police officers on Christmas Island reported sighting the vessel being washed onto the shoreline at Rocky Point, causing the people onboard to be thrown into the water. The geography of Rocky Point made it extremely difficult for assistance to be rendered from the shoreline. Customs and Border Protection officers and members of the community on the scene threw life jackets to people in the water.
  • 10:35am HMAS Pirie requested the assistance of ACV Triton to respond. ACV Triton immediately responded and started passage to the scene.
  • 11:01am — The tender from HMAS Pirie arrived on the scene and started rescue operations.
  • 11:22am — A tender from ACV Triton arrived on the scene to provide further assistance with the rescue effort.
  • 12:45pm — Andrew Bolt calls for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to resign in a blog post titled “Blood on their hands“.
  • 12:49pm “Jane of Ballarat” kicks off a string of comments on a Herald Sun story about the incident, many of which blame Labor policy and call the asylum seekers (many of which are still in the water) “illegals”.
  • 1:10pm — Tim BIair files a blog post entitled “Weakness kills” saying that Labor’s asylum seeker policies are the cause of the disaster.
  • 1:17pm —  A statement from the Australian Federal Police says that they are responding to a maritime incident on Christmas Island.
  • 3:07pm — Asked at a press conference if the tragedy reflected a failure of government policy, acting-PM Wayne  Swan says it is “too early and not appropriate to have that debate now”.
  • 3:27pm — Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul says the federal government’s policies are to blame for the boat crash.
  • 3:37pm — In a series of tweets, Catherine Deveny asks why people would want to “stop the boats” and says that the government should welcome the asylum seekers.
  • 3:57pm — Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison appears at a press conference, saying that “today is a day for sadness, not for policy discussion and analysis”.
  • 4:49pm — Prime Minister Gillard issues a statement saying that the government’s priority is “rescue, recovery and treatment”.
  • 5:30pm —  Julie Bishop calls the incident “an absolutely shocking human tragedy” and says more information is needed before an assessment can be made.

By the end of search-and-rescue operations at last light, 42 survivors and 28 deceased had been accounted for. Rescue operations would continue the next morning, as would political point scoring.

Peter Fray

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