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Joint Select Committee on the Christmas Island Tragedy
07/06/2011
Incident of 15 December 2010

SOUTHERTON, Mr Ian, Operations Director, Serco

YOONG, Dr Ling, Area Medical Director, International Health and Medical Services, Christmas Island

CHAIR: I welcome Dr Yoong and Mr Southerton.

Dr Yoong : I represent IHMS which provides health care for asylum seekers on the island.

Mr Southerton : Serco are based in Australia and we are a global company as well. We are the detention services provider for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

CHAIR: I invite you to make some opening remarks about what happened, what you did and your role in this area.

Dr Yoong : I was alerted to the fact that there had been a boat crash at about quarter to seven on 15 December. I was at North West Point. I turned my car around and went to the site. The swell was so high that it was hitting the cliff face. There were pieces of boat in the ocean. There were still a couple of people on what remained of the boat. The Navy was desperately trying to pick people up from the water. There was a group of community members at the lower base of the cliff trying to throw lifejackets and things to people in the water. It was raining heavily and it was misty. Our paramedic was on site. Mr Brian Lacy was on site and declared it an emergency situation. We could do nothing to help the people in the water.

Customs said they could offload those people picked up from the sea at Ethel Beach. I went back to Phosphate Construction Camp and got our responder bag and what we thought we would need for all the survivors. We fronted up at Ethel Beach. The top of the beach was already in the process of being prepared for receiving the wounded. There were red tents, yellow tents and green tents. I had two doctors with me, two paramedics and about six nurses. Dr Julie and I got together and we decided what we were going to do. We were going to send some doctors to the hospital to receive the wounded who were going to be transported there. The Navy also wanted a doctor on their boat to look after those people they had picked up from the sea. So I deployed a doctor, a paramedic and a nurse to go with Dr Gary Mitchell on the RHIB to the Navy boat to look after those people who had already been picked up by the boat but had not yet been brought onshore.

Throughout the day, we received all the people transported to the beach. Bear in mind that the sea was really rough and that people were putting their lives in danger to pick up those asylum seekers. During the day, dead bodies were being brought out. They were not enough body bags, so they were wrapped in black plastic. After everybody, as well as the dead bodies, had been brought up, we went to the hospital to check on all the people who had been processed. It was not until about seven o'clock that everything was settled. I took the doctors and the nurses out to dinner. I went back to the camp at about 11 o'clock and everything was quiet and peaceful.

The next day, the mental health team dealt with a lot of the trauma and, on the evening of the 16th, the psychologists arrived—four of them. I debriefed them on what had happened—they were also debriefed in the morning by my mental health team—and they got right into it and looked after all those people who had been traumatised. Throughout the day, we dealt with the medical issues and the psychologists dealt with the psychological trauma. In the evening, the psychologists came and debriefed me on what had happened during the day. What they recognised was that the most vulnerable period was around five o'clock in the morning, so they were out in the compound at 5 am to deal with all those people who were awake and needing someone to talk to. There was a shortage of interpreters, but we managed to get interpreters for the psychologists to enable them to deal with those trauma cases.

Once we knew there had been a boat crash, the island emergency plan came into place and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the RFDS, was deployed. That night, the hospital sent a few patients to the mainland, because they were injured. In the end, a total of six people from SIEV221 were sent to the mainland. While on the mainland, they were given psychological counselling. So I think—I believe—that we provided the best possible care for these people.

CHAIR: Mr Southerton?

Mr Southerton : I was also on Christmas island the day that it happened. I was the operations director for Serco. My role has now changed; I am now the regional HR manager for CI and WA. I had a phone call at around 20 past 6 in the morning from a colleague of mine from North West Point, who asked if I had received a phone call, and I said, 'No, I've just been on a couple of conference calls with the mainland.' He said, 'You really need to get down here. You really need to see this.' I said, 'Oh, my goodness, what has happened?' I was advised that a boat had foundered and that it had broken into pieces. Straightaway I made my way down to Settlement to Rocky Point. The weather was absolutely atrocious. It was misty, there was heavy rain, and I just remember getting to the coastline and seeing a surreal scene. There were people clinging to pieces of wood and women and children screaming and men screaming as well. It was the most horrendous scene I have ever witnessed. I just stood there and there was absolutely nothing that I could do or that anybody who was with me could do. All we could do was just stop. The Navy were trying to save some of these poor, desperate people in the sea. There was very little that they could do.

I had a phone call from another colleague of mine who was the regional manager responsible for all sites on CI. We had a quick discussion and he said, 'I think the rescue effort is going to be over at Ethel Beach,' and I said, 'There's nothing I can do here. You look after the sites; make sure all the clients are safe in the sites. I'll go to the rescue effort and do whatever I need to do there.' I said, 'I'll muster some staff so we can assist with the other agencies.' I did not know what the setup would be at that particular point. I made my way to Ethel Beach. I had to park my car some way away from where the triage centre was being set up. I walked down, and it was literally an all-hands-on-deck effort to assist the other agencies. We assisted IHMS setting up the tents, we assisted DIAC, I called the centre, we brought food, we brought refreshments—not for just staff but for the survivors. We brought blankets, towels, clothing for all ages. We assisted to get the site set up and we were just very clear as to what we needed to do with all our colleagues from other agencies. I think there were eight colleagues of mine from the sites who came down and then we started to assist the police to bring the survivors and the deceased ashore when they arrived. We would literally receive them from Customs, walk them up the jetty and then they would be handed to IHMS services for them to undertake the triaging. We spent the best part of the day also bringing the deceased ashore. A vivid memory of that, as the doctor has rightly stated, is that there were very few body bags available. The sea was still very turbulent when people were trying to bring the deceased shore. I remember being at the bottom of the jetty, and the only way that we could get them ashore was to literally tie some string around the body, drop them into the sea and then pull them ashore and put them to a body bag. That was the only we could do it with any dignity. That was the only thing that we could do. There were children who were deceased, there were adults, and they were taken away to the mortuary. We stayed there for the whole of the day until the rescue effort had concluded. I think we brought 41 survivors ashore. I am not quite sure of the toll for the deceased. Then at the end of the day we basically took all the tents down and assisted all the other agencies in getting everything packed up, leaving the site clean and then we made our way back to the centres and assisted with the care and welfare of the clients.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Southerton. Doctor, do you still have an ongoing monitoring role for the survivors in terms of trauma counselling?

Dr Yoong : The survivors are off island now and they are, I think, mainly in community detention. If they are in community detention, they will still be under IHMS, and mental health people off island will be looking after them.

CHAIR: Is there someone in IHMS that would have overall responsibility for the ongoing monitoring?

Dr Yoong : Dr Clayton Spencer is the doctor on the mainland, and he will have overall—

CHAIR: Thank you. I guess different people left at different times, so how long would the last survivor have been under your care?

Dr Yoong : I cannot remember the date but I think they left at the end of January or in early February.

Mr Southerton : I think it was roughly around that time. The survivors were taken to Phosphate Alpha, which is just across the way here; it is in the centre of Phosphate Hill. They were located there. I think there were 41 in total.

Dr Yoong : Forty-two, and six off island—so there were 36.

CHAIR: I know you have said that you believe medically everything was done that could have been done. Were there enough staff and resources on the island to provide the necessary health care?

Dr Yoong : We were really stretched but I think everybody really got into it and provided the care that these people needed. That includes all the volunteers on the island and the people in the hospital. We could not have asked for a better group of people during that crisis, because it was just extraordinary.

Mr Southerton : Community spirit here was just outstanding. I have never quite experienced anything like it. It really was outstanding.

Dr Yoong : And we had never worked together as a group, but it all gelled together and it was a good example of people working together as a team.

Mr PERRETT: Dr Yoong, could you talk us through some of the types of trauma, the injuries, of the 42. Was it water in the lungs, abrasions from the rocks, diesel in the lungs? What were the types of injuries? For the six who left—without giving individual details—what was the type of treatment they received?

Dr Yoong : There was one who probably aspirated some water who was transferred off island. One thought they might have some diesel fumes inhalation. One had amputation of a finger. One had some scalp wounds and one had some lacerations on the arms and feet, I think. But most of the injuries were not severe, not life-threatening ones that you needed to operate on or deal with immediately. Considering the wreck, I think the injuries were minor.

Senator FIELDING: The way that you have outlined exactly what you saw unfolding, it was definitely really horrific. How long have you been on the island for?

Dr Yoong : I have been here a year.

Senator FIELDING: Have you heard anything in recent months from the community that you speak to about what else needs to happen, from a mental health perspective, for those people that were rescuers on the day? Have you been hearing much at all?

Dr Yoong : Some of the committee members are quite traumatised. We did have an EAP counsellor up to debrief all of us. I think that was really useful, because it is not something you go through every day. It is traumatic.

Senator FIELDING: I can hear that. Is there anything else resource-wise for those people that were rescuers? Is it just time?

Dr Yoong : It is just time. Every time there is a boat out there you worry if the weather is rough. If the weather is really rough you think, 'Is there a boat out there?' because we do not want to see this happen again.

Mr Southerton : For Serco staff as well, there are some staff still undergoing counselling. At the time we had a two-stringed approach. We had an on-site employee assistance program here, which is a dual service: one is an emergency service for counselling and the other is a general service where you can book a counselling appointment. But we also have a dedicated staff psychologist who is responsible for CI anyway. She was off-site at that particular point, but we arranged for a staff psychologist to fly to the island the following day and we also set up a triage service in Perth so that we could capture all the staff that left CI. We set that up for about a month after, so we captured all staff to make sure that they were okay and whether they needed any counselling.

Dr Yoong : And we had an extra psychological counsellor come up because we also realised that our staff needed help but Serco staff also needed help. So we had one of our counsellors deal with the Serco staff who were right at the front line.

Mr Southerton : It is fair to say that at that particular point all agencies shared the counselling resources. I know that our counsellor assisted staff from other agencies and vice versa. It really was a collaborative approach.

Senator FIELDING: Thank you, Dr Yoong, for your work and the work of your team.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I would like to ask some questions about the ability of the survivors to recover once they had been put into that Alpha compound. Some of the evidence that we have received includes stories of children who had become orphaned. One particular boy who obviously was very traumatised did not comprehend that his parents had died in the boat crash. There were stories of him running to the gate when a new bus load of asylum seekers would arrive, thinking his parents would be on that bus and when they were not that they would be on the next bus. There was a story of a mother with a 10-year-old daughter who was obviously not coping and kept telling her daughter that her dad would be there soon even though the daughter knew that the dad had died.

Mr PERRETT: Is this evidence that we have?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, it was given to us in the confidential briefing?

Mr PERRETT: Sorry, I have not read that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Obviously it was a traumatic experience for everybody involved. In your medical professional opinion, do you believe that the detention and the housing of those people in the Alpha compound perhaps compounded that trauma?

Dr Yoong : I think a lot of the things that you have there are hearsay. That boy who has lost his parents had an aunt arrive on the 20th on SIEV222. The aunt was really traumatised. The psychologist worked with her throughout the whole afternoon and late into the night. It was a couple of days later that they united that child with the aunt and it all went really well. After the psychologist left, we had a psychiatrist come up and the psychiatrist assessed that the child is doing really quite well.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Given the circumstances?

Dr Yoong : Given the circumstances.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: My question relates to the added impact of detaining children, families, anyone who has been through that kind of experience.

Dr Yoong : The advice from the psychiatrist and the psychologist is that we need to keep them together for a little while. Once they have gone through the initial grief, then they will need to go maybe to the site, if they wish to, to look at the site of the trauma. Then they need to get off the island, to a place where they can recover. That was the advice. How long should they stay here? I cannot tell.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In perhaps not such a unique situation as dealing with a group of asylum seekers, if there was a traumatic experience would you be suggesting that people be detained?

Dr Yoong : That is not my call.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: From your medical perspective, what would be the best way of being able to care for somebody?

Dr Yoong : What would you consider 'being detained' means? They are in a low-security facility; they are on an island—there is nothing we can do about putting people on an island. We are 2,600 kilometres from the mainland. Should we fly them off immediately? Probably not, because they need to grieve in this situation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Was there a sense from the support services and people reporting to you that the survivors did not want people to come and visit them and to see them? How were they coping in terms of managing the trauma?

Dr Yoong : The psychologist was there every day from five o'clock in the morning until about nine o'clock at night. They were there to provide whatever advice they could to these people.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: We have been talking about a lot of the ways that people in the local community have been able to draw on coping mechanisms, and that is not just through the formalised counselling services—

Dr Yoong : But, Senator, if you have trauma would you like people outside coming to talk to you; would you like people outside your trauma interfering with what you are experiencing? I do not think so. How would you feel if somebody say from the community coming to ask you—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I would want my family and my friends around me, and I would imagine that these people would feel the same.

Dr Yoong : Maybe—I do not know.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Who would you want?

Dr Yoong : My family.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: From Serco's perspective, was the emotional level of interaction and communication amongst survivors in Alpha compound in any way different to that of any other groups of arrivals that you have had to manage in any of the other compounds?

Mr Southerton : I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but from experience the clients had been through a very traumatic experience. They were shocked, they were upset, they were grieving, there was bewilderment—the whole range of emotions. There was interaction, as the doctors rightly stated, from IHMS and the mental health perspective and there was counselling as well. That was available immediately so those referrals could take place.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There were extra services available in that facility because of the added understanding of what had happened, in terms of both medical and psychological support. What about the other services that you, as Serco, are contracted to provide through welfare, educational and activity based elements? Did you change any of those elements, based on your contract, from what you would do in other compounds?

Mr Southerton : Those elements can change according to the risk that is presented. We assess the risk at that particular point. There were additional staff flown to the island to assist. We did provide more staffing to that particular site because of the risk that was presented where the clients were concerned. So, yes, it would not be a standard service. It would change according to the risk or the circumstances presented. We constantly review that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There are a set of things that you have to provide, though.

Mr Southerton : Absolutely, according to the contract. Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Were there things you needed to do more of, or ask the department whether you could provide, in addition to your standard service provision?

Mr Southerton : I think what was different was that there was a much higher staff concentration to deal with that particular group of clients, based on their needs. For instance, we provide programs and activities, but that had to be slightly different because it was very difficult for those clients to engage, given how traumatised they were. It would not have been appropriate to have gone in with a full program of scheduled activities. We purchased toys and colouring books and so on for the children to act as a distraction for them, because they were clearly upset. We focused as much as we could on their emotional needs, given how traumatised they were. The children, for instance, were crying and may have needed a cuddle from somebody. It was as basic as that.

Mr HUSIC: If Serco made an assumption that it wanted to do something based on its own expertise, would you be able to do that regardless of what the act said? That is, if you made an assessment that it would aid in the comfort of the people in your care, could you do that without reference to—

Mr Southerton : We are the service provider; DIAC is the customer. So we work in collaboration with DIAC. Everything that we do has to be approved by DIAC. That is a contractual obligation.

Mr HUSIC: Understood.

Mr Southerton : I have to say that there is a very productive working relationship with DIAC and, certainly, it was very much a joint approach—as it always is with everything that we do here. That is entirely appropriate, because we are accountable to DIAC.

Mr PERRETT: Your duty of care is the same for every client, irrespective of where they come from or their circumstances. Once they get there you have a duty of care for them—irrespective.

Mr Southerton : Irrespective of site and where they are based, it is the same.

Mr PERRETT: Whether they came safely off a boat or through traumatic circumstances, depending on how they present as your client, you still have to care for them.

Mr Southerton : Sure. But, as I said to you, our services could be altered according to the risks that are presented. So there is a level of care provided at, say, Perth IDC, which is fairly static and constant and works fairly well, operationally. It would be different here. Again, we would make an assessment according to the circumstances. There is always that flexibility, but we would always work very collaboratively with the customer.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did the asylum seekers in the other compounds know what had happened?

Mr Southerton : Yes. On a particular day I had focused my efforts on the rescue effort and assisting other agencies and the regional manager. I was also working with the staff to make sure that the clients had the information they needed, because it became clear that some of the survivors and the deceased did have relatives that were at other sites on Christmas Island.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: We know that in some cases they were reunited, in the place that the doctor spoke about, for example. Did it happen across the board that, if anyone did have family or people they knew, they were able to make contact?

Mr Southerton : I think as far as possible that happened. Again, it would have been agreed with DIAC as to how that was approached. But as far as possible I am sure that was the case.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In the end, when people were being housed in the Alpha compound, how many people from the other compounds had been allowed to move in there to be with their family?

Mr Southerton : I am not sure.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would you be able to take that on notice?

Mr Southerton : I can certainly find out.

Mr PERRETT: Is that a family reunification policy of Serco?

Mr Southerton : Again, we agree any placement issues with DIAC. It is just that I am not particularly sure about the question you have asked. I would rather give a definitive answer.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But that did happen in some cases, didn't it?

Mr Southerton : I believe so.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In the case of the orphan boy, his aunt was able to come and stay with him in Alpha.

Mr Southerton : Yes. But, as I understand it, most of the clients were located in Phosphate Alpha until they actually left the island.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, that is my understanding. So, if they were to be able to have their family around them at that time, I would imagine that their family would have had to be allowed to move into Alpha.

Mr Southerton : That is possibly the case, but I am not able to confirm that.

Senator CROSSIN: Dr Yoong, we have quite a number of statements that have been provided in confidence to us from the survivors. Some of them relay that it took a number of days for them to find out whether family members had died or had gone missing and to find out what had happened after they asked questions about suitcases or luggage or backpacks they might have had with them. Are those some of the requests that they pass on to you as well?

Dr Yoong : No. A missing person, and who is connected to whom, took a while because everything was in such disarray. Also there was the situation of having to identify.

Senator CROSSIN: Yes, I understand. So, if they are still asking questions about possessions that might have been on the boat and whether they were saved or lost, do they ask you? Would they be asking psychologists? What is the process? Is that request passed to DIAC?

Dr Yoong : I do not know of any request asking about possessions. If there are any requests at all they are always passed on to DIAC.

Mr Southerton : It probably runs through Serco initially or through their case manager from DIAC.

Senator CROSSIN: Some of them still seem not to have answers, though. Many months later some of them do not seem to have answers, and I am wondering if that is because there are no answers, in which case they should be told that, or whether there is a delay in the process or a lack of attention in the process.

Dr Yoong : It is not the role of IHMS to do that.

Senator CROSSIN: And not Serco's either. They are matters handled by DIAC, are they?

Mr Southerton : They are ultimately. But the query could initially be raised through us.

Senator CROSSIN: Then you pass it on, do you?

Mr Southerton : We would liaise with DIAC. I do not quite know what has happened there.

Senator CROSSIN: All right. The other thing I want to ask is: of those who did survive, how quickly was Serco able to get them a range of clothing or personal items that they could use? Are we talking about 24 hours or a week or months?

Mr Southerton : No. Some of them had no clothes at all because of what had happened. As soon as they arrived off the jetty they were provided with clothing as part of the triage service and then, when they arrived at Phosphate Alpha, if they needed further clothing that was available.

Senator CROSSIN: So there was not a shortage of clothing available for people who needed it?

Mr Southerton : Not as far as I am aware, no.

Mr PERRETT: Just to clarify, when you said they had no clothes, do you mean they had no clothes apart from the clothes they were standing in?

Mr Southerton : Some of them had lost their clothing in the sea. Some of them were naked when they came ashore.

Senator CROSSIN: Did they know to ask for other clothing? In some of the statements we have from survivors they seem to think that they had a couple of T-shirts or a couple of skirts or a couple of pairs of pants and that is all they had for weeks and weeks. Did they know to ask for other clothing or were they offered other clothing?

Mr Southerton : There is an induction process for them, so they would have been advised as to how to apply for clothing.

Senator CROSSIN: Did they understand it?

Mr Southerton : Any induction process would have had an interpreter available at the time, and certainly on a day-to-day basis the interpreters would have been available.

Mr HUSIC: Would have or did have?

Mr Southerton : I am sure they would have done, yes.

Mr HUSIC: Can you clarify for me—I probably missed it in the introduction—your position within Serco.

Mr Southerton : At that time I was a director of operations. That was for all sites across the mainland and also Christmas Island.

Mr HUSIC: What does that entail?

Mr Southerton : Very quickly, that is the delivery of the statement of works, which is in effect the contract that we have with DIAC.

CHAIR: Dr Yoong and Mr Southerton, thank you very much for sharing your stories with us.

Mr Southerton : I hope that it has been helpful to you.

CHAIR: Yes, it has been useful to the committee. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 10 : 57 to 11 : 09