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

SU, Mr Zhong Xiong (Chris), Private capacity

CHAIR: We will recommence our inquiry. We are now at the position where we have invited members of the Christmas Island community to address the committee, if they wish, and to share their stories or concerns with the committee. I am very pleased to welcome Mr Chris Su to the table, who is one of the residents who has advised us that he would like to come and do that. We are very pleased that you have done so and now invite you to address the committee.

Mr Su : On that morning, at about quarter past seven, I arrived at work at the local shire council. When I got to work I heard that there was an asylum seeker boat crash down behind the police station. My role is that I am the community liaison officer for the Shire of Christmas Island. This position was funded by DIAC last year for the community to be able to have someone to talk to about DIAC operations or about things that happen at the IDC. They give me their feedback, concerns or questions then I go to my weekly meeting with DIAC, get an official response and feed that back to that individual person.

The majority of my job is getting feedback on really mundane things, usually like, 'Some DIAC staff were speeding,' or not being good citizens of the island or stuff like that. It also includes very broad-ranging things like what happened in December and in March of this year.

I made my way down to the site. On my way down an ambulance passed me on the way back up the hill. I later on learned that was for a man who seemed to have got himself onto the cliff face and was being taken back up to the hospital. I did not actually go down to the Golden Bosun Tavern, the area where most of the people were responding. I went down to the Padang-the police station next door to the park. It was raining heavily, and I stopped there and looked at the Navy RHIBs going back and forth across the water. There was jetsam and flotsam about, and you could barely make out people amongst all that.

At about 07:40 am I went down into the Golden Bosun proper, and by the time I got down there it was all over; the RHIBs were not there anymore. I met with David Nielsen. David Nielsen is the works and services manager of the shire, and he was in charge of traffic maintenance for that day. A lot of the first responders had already left, and I believe they went further up the coast. When I reached that point, they were grabbing plastic containers from the garbage, big plastic water containers, to put on the parks truck. I think they were driving up further on the settlement to throw it off the cliff, if there was anybody else down there. We had to go and scrounge through garbage to get things to save people with. David Nielsen told me that they were going to rally at Ethel Beach to bring up the survivors and the bodies. So I said, 'All right; I'll head over towards Ethel Beach now to update them.' He told me that Thompson—who is a council worker; not Gordon Thomson—was up at Ethel Beach junction, between Linkwater Road and Ethel Beach, and I went up there to see him.

By 8.20, I was up at the intersection of Linkwater Road and Ethel Beach, and Thompson stopped me and asked me: 'Chris, do you have to come down to Ethel Beach? I was told to only let in people who were from emergency services.' He asked me if I needed to be there as shire DIAC CLO. At that point, I said, 'No, probably not; I probably wouldn't be any use down there.' I updated Thompson on what was happening and what just happened down at the Bosun. I do not think Thompson was actually at the Bosun at any time. I asked him to keep doing his job. I said, 'Pretty soon, behind me, there will be a lot of spectators coming in and people wanting to help out. Just do what David asks you and turn them away unless they are with VMR or SES or the hospital and so on. It'll probably be better for everybody if you kept on turning them away.' He goes, 'All right. Thanks.'

So I turned back and I went back to the shire, to see Kelvin Matthews, the CEO and my boss, to fill him in on what I had seen during that morning. ABC Radio had already broken the news, and they were talking broad facts, like 'many hands lost at sea' and 'there was a boat crash'. So I filled him in on what I had seen that morning. This must have been at about nine o'clock or 9.30. It occurred to me that we would have to store the bodies somewhere. I had been to the morgue on CI before, and I knew it could only carry 10 people or so, at the very most, I think. We had never really had that much space. I looked at Kelvin and said, 'Where can we store the bodies?' and he goes, 'At the morgue.' I said, 'The morgue is only going to carry 10.' So we called in Colin Wheadon—he is a building inspector at the shire and our go-to guy—and we had a bit of a conference right there and then. We said, 'We have to get a freezer container; that is the only thing we can do to house all the bodies that will need to be housed.'

At that point I called up DIAC. I spoke to a person called Gregory Lake—I think he might have been some kind of director of operations, that sort of role—and asked him, 'Have DIAC thought about where they're going to put the bodies yet?' By the tone of his voice at the other end of the phone, I could tell he had not thought of that either—everything was happening so quickly. He said: 'Chris, we're letting the AFP take care of this one. You don't have to do anything today in your role as a CLO. We're going to let the AFP and emergency services take over.' I said thanks.

Colin and I went up to the hospital to see if we could assist them in setting up a freezer container. By the time we got up there, at about 10 or 10.30 am, an electrician—Kheong, I think, from Acker Trading—had already set up a freezer container. Obviously, someone on the emergency management committee must have thought about that an hour earlier and got onto Kheong, the electrician, and asked him to get up there, so that was really good. It was good to see the emergency management committee having the foresight to get that done because the morgue is really small.

The rest of the day is kind of a blur. I do remember that I talked to DIAC later that day—I forget who now. They told me that their EAP, which is their psychologist, I believe, at North West Point, was being made available to the broader public at that point in time, not just to the DIAC staff and DIAC interpreters, and that at block 567 or 568, in his house in Poon Saan, he was going to take anybody who came to talk to him from that evening onwards—for the next day and, I think, the day after as well. I got that information and went down to the noticeboards and wrote a message that said something like: 'If you want somebody to talk to, Block 568, Unit'—whatever it was—'from now until late at night or any time, come up.' I wrote that up on the board at the end of the day on 15 December.

Perhaps the next day or the day after, I went to talk to Sean Devine, the psychologist at the hospital, to ask him, 'What can we do at this point in time? There is nothing to be communicated except counselling services.' He said he agreed. He asked me to go to people who were involved as the first-line responders to quietly tell them, 'If you want somebody to talk to, we are here in the hospital,' or 'Talk to your pastor or to your cleric. Have a chat to somebody, for God's sake, in the first week after the incident.' So I did that. I went back and spoke to some people who I knew were down on the shore that day and who had to do some work in the days after. One of the dive operators, I think, really needed someone to talk to. I passed on the information to him. I think perhaps he may have gone for a chat; I am not sure. Take-up numbers were very low in that period. Like we said earlier, many islanders leave Christmas Island, ironically, during Christmas time, to see friends and family back home. On the Saturday afterwards a lot of islanders left, and in the following week as well. So we could not catch as many people as we would have liked to have caught. Having said that, I think being able to put some distance between you and the place where something bad happened is probably a good place to start for your recovery and recuperation. When you are going off at Christmas time you are going off to see your parents on the mainland or your grandma, maybe, in Malaysia or Singapore. So it will be good for them to get out there at that time of the year.

I talked to Sean more about the grieving process and how long it takes for people to want to talk about things. He said some might take days, some weeks, some months—it is different for everybody. I also talked to the EAP, the psychologist that DIAC provided, and he said the same thing: you might not get anybody wanting to talk about it for a few weeks and then suddenly they will be stressed out and cannot sleep. Some were going to need somebody to talk to straightaway; some might be months down the track. It was a very heavy hit around about Christmas time. When the media came that following Saturday as well, it did not do anybody any good. Those guys ask a lot of questions very directly and it stirs things up within people. It was a very tumultuous Christmas.

As CLO, part of my role is also to arrange for activities in instances where the community and DIAC staff can interact or community, DIAC staff and asylum seekers can interact. Over the last year I have managed to arrange various events and festivals and invited clients, asylum seekers, to come down as well. Our local Territory Day festival celebrates when CI became part of Australia, and some clients participated in that. I took it upon myself to initiate the memorial service. As we touched on earlier today, even after the event in December we had things come one after the other. There was the fuel crisis, then planes could not come in and the ships still could not come in. So nobody really had time to think about anything else except reacting to what was happening week after week on CI.

The initial draft for the memorial service was going to have it down at the Golden Bosun, near the rocks, but we were advised that that was not a good place to have it for a few reasons: (1) logistically, I had to arrange for sound and tables and whatnot down there, and it was going to be impossible; and (2) the weather system from December to January, February, March—every day was a grey, cloudy day. It rained every day up until the beginning of March. The rain would not let up. Nobody has seen such a bad weather system here before. My father has been here for the last 35 years and he said that that storm at the end of last year that spread all the way up until this year was incredible. I was not going to arrange for a memorial service to take people back down to the same spot, the same location, on the same day that they lost their family, with the same weather, the same high seas. It would have triggered things in them that they would have worked hard, from December to March, with their counsellors at Phosphate Hill to get over. So we drew up the plan to have the memorial service here at the rec centre, also because they are living next door at Phosphate Hill and so it would be easy for Serco to arrange for the numbers of people to just walk over here to join the memorial service instead of getting buses to go down there. We planned the memorial service for up here, an hour service followed by a flower procession to lay flowers down to the point. I think it was very healing to go back and acknowledge the spot where they fell.

I learned a lot about how people grieve during that time. When some residents found out that it was going to be at the rec centre and not entirely down at Rocky Point they were very upset. They said it should be down at Rocky Point where it happened. They told me that mainland Australians especially wanted it at the site, that if somebody has a car accident on a corner where, say, their son passed away they have a service or something there, and they felt it should be the same thing down there as well. That approach to grieving may give mainland Australians perhaps a sense of closure, but for our people when somebody passes away somewhere we do not go back to there. Last year my friend passed away at the beach. None of us met at the beach for months and months; even today we do not go there for anything because that is where he passed. So a memorial service was held up here.

The conversation we had with DIAC was that we wanted to have asylum seekers come to the memorial service as well because it is not honourable to have a memorial service and not invite the people who lost people that day. DIAC were very indecisive about whether or not I could have asylum seekers come: they said they were not going to be there, then they were going to be there. Then DIAC said they received advice from counsellors regarding whether or not they should all be grieving at the same place at the same time. It was touch and go, and at the very last moment, I think the week before, at the end of February, we had a meeting with the department. There was me, Gordon Thomson and Fiona Andrew, the then assistant secretary, and she said the clients were not going to be on the island on Saturday, 5 March. So then we asked if we could have a message from them to be read out to the island community and she said yes. We arranged for me, Gordon Thomson and Kay Bernard to go to Phosphate Hill to collect a message from two individuals, Hadi and Ramin, for us to read out to the community. While I was there I gave them an invitation to come to the memorial service, written in Farsi, just say could have that and know that we were showing solidarity with them and were thinking about them throughout this time. They thanked us and said that, as best they knew at that time, they were not going to be here. They thanked us for thinking about them over the last few months.

As Trish would know, the memorial service took place at the far end of the rec centre with the roller doors up to let the breeze in. Initially the plan was to have it in the centre of the rec centre under the scoreboard, but I moved it to the far end of the court because when you roll up the roller doors you look right into Phosphate Hill camp, you are not even 10 metres away, so if the clients really wanted to come and they were there but were not being allowed to come out, they could still come to the fence and have a look in—we were that close to them.

I will touch on some earlier points made today. One was whether there were any attempts to bring the community and survivors together between December and March. There were not. Certainly nobody approached me and asked if they could come and see any of the survivors. None of the survivors, of course, saw me; I did not meet any of them except for that day I saw Ramin and Hadi. To see somebody in detention, you need to know their name and identification number. Without those two items, you cannot really request to see anybody. Even if there was an attempt to meet, I do not think it would have been approved by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship because this was a very sensitive time for those survivors. Some of those survivors—not all—were very angry with Christmas Island people. I am not sure if anybody has told you that.

You would have seen the photos and videos of the event that day. If some of the survivors who were in the water, or if they needed help, and they saw us taking photos and videos, they could not understand why we were doing that. I found this out from some of the survivors later. We were motioning some of them away from the rocks—'go that way'—and I found out later that they thought we were telling them to go away and not come to the island. We were telling them to 'go that way; the water is going to be coming that way—don't come to the cliff'. But they could not swim so they made their way onto the cliff and the water's force was too great when the waves came. You would not have had a chance in hell of holding on to that cliff. So they misunderstood what we were trying to say.

Not everybody was angry, obviously, but when you lose so many people in your own family the grieving process in the first stage is disbelief, then anger, and some were very angry. I think some really understood that we did the best. You will see in the submission that we had letters from the survivors to be read out to the community, and many of those letters expressed a deep gratitude and thankfulness to the islanders for what we did that day. But not everybody felt the same way, especially in the weeks immediately after, when the survivors were asking, 'Where was the help? Where was a Navy ship?' or 'Why didn't the big Navy ship come in?'

They saw the large Navy ship on the edge but only saw the two RHIBs come in. They do not understand, I guess, that large Navy ships cannot come in that close to the cliff because that is not how Navy ships work—they need a certain level of depth in the water, I guess.

That was one of the main reasons why there was never any community and survivor meetings. That was actually a very big secret. The community members did not know that any of the asylum seekers were very angry with them, and we also were very traumatised by the event. If it were to have got out in December and January that some survivors were angry at us, I do not know what that would have done to the people who tried their very best. It would have tipped them over the edge; it would have done things—I do not know what—the reaction would have been not positive, so that was kept quiet for a very long time.

I believe—was it the week before the March memorial service—there was a service in Sydney at the end of February that was not a media win for the department. There were cameras about, people wailing and crying. I learnt from people who worked with asylum seekers that when people from that part of the world grieve, they grieve with great energy, which is different to the way we—my people—grieve in Australia where it is much more closed and more sombre. If we had a repeat of that public show of grief in front of islanders who were dealing with their own sort of feelings about that day, that might not have been the best either.

In addition, I think there was always the feeling from the department that the media should not come to the island on the day to cover the memorial service. It was the DIAC policy that the media are not allowed to film asylum seekers and show their faces on TV, and so on and so forth. I think that was also one of the reasons why they decided not to let the asylum seekers come to the memorial service. I think that is it.

CHAIR: Thank you, Chris, very much. Are you happy to answer a couple of questions? We will not go on for long and, when you have had enough of us, just let me know and we will end it there. You sort of answered my question: I was going to ask how long you have been on the island, and you said your father has been here for over 30 years. I was just going to ask about your experience. You talked about your father's. Was it the worst weather period you have seen too?

Mr Su : In the middle of February this year my friend put on Facebook: 40 days and 40 nights, no sun. It was 40 days and 40 nights—from the beginning of January we did not see the sun. We did not see the sun for months. It was really depressing. We had a small break in the weather in the week leading up to Christmas where we saw some blue sky but, after that, we did not see any blue sky again until the first week of March. It was terrible. I suppose you can have a look at various meteorological reports. They are also available at national parks, but we did not see blue sky for such a long time.

CHAIR: On 15 December in terms of the ocean—is that a regular occurrence or is it out of the ordinary?

Mr Su : It was unusual. The water was very heavy. It was like there was cyclone on the island but there wasn't a cyclone at the time officially. It was like cyclonic weather. The waters were terrible.

CHAIR: I am just wondering how you think the community is moving on. We know there have been a lot of support services available and some people have taken that up, and you have talked about people grieving in different ways.

Mr Su : Many people go back to their faith during times of great crisis. I think people talked to the imam or cleric at the mosque and would have perhaps sought solace in the holy book. I went to pray at my temple to meditate on what had happened and brought questions of life and death. Support for people who needed support was always there, and we put out flyers and so on in the days after the disaster so people knew that the hospital was the point of reference.

Our island is very small and we know that our hospital is very good, so everybody, if something is wrong with them emotionally or physically, knows where to go. Talking about something like this, of the enormity, the finality and the impossibility of it happening, in a place so familiar took a great toll on people.

If you told somebody that the greatest maritime disaster in peacetime history was going to happen on Christmas Island, people would say, 'What?' and then it happened. Imagine if people died in your street, you would not believe it. People need to have some kind of block and weeks later perhaps they might snap, especially, at things like this where people wanted to come and talk about it. No-one is going to turn up because they do not want to talk about it.

Senator FIELDING: Chris, thank you for coming and sharing. It must have been difficult to even come and share; we really appreciate that. We are certainly aware of some survivors being very angry and some of their thoughts may be that there wasn't the right amount of help. You went through some of that when people were directing them to move around and they were saying, 'Go away'; or 'Why were the big Defence Force boats so far away?' and those sorts of things. We are aware of those issues. We have had some confidential submissions, but I cannot go into any detail but we are aware of those issues. In some of the questioning that this committee has been doing with the authorities, we have tried to make sure that we look at every angle. I have come to the conclusion that, once we knew the boat was there, everything possible was done. Certainly the Christmas Island community really were very heroic as well in trying to do all they could to try and save people that were helpless. So we very much appreciate your sharing what you have shared.

The issue of having some of the survivors at that community memorial is a sensitive issue. We have asked quite few a questions along the way in that regard to work out what advice was sought and whether expert advice was sought. From what I understand, in the end there was that expert advice that maybe it was not a good idea. Hopefully that helps relay to you a bit from there, but I suppose we will never know whether that was right or wrong. We have had evidence given that expert advice was that it may not really have been the best.

Do you think there is anything else that we could do for the community? You may have some insights that may be worth hearing. You can take that on notice; you do not need to provide it right now. It was not a test of how good you were; I just wondered if there was anything on your mind.

Mr Su : Inadvertently Canberra is asking the CI community to do a lot of things. When they house, at one point, 3,000 asylum seekers on Christmas Island they have to rely on our volunteer firefighting service, our volunteer ambulance drivers and our volunteer marine rescue. We are staffed by volunteers. We all go out to the centre every time if somebody calls for an ambulance. We will go out every time when somebody calls for a fire truck and assistance. But for us to help Canberra look after the people they want us to look after, they need to give us more things to help do the job, even on a voluntary level. We have had more than 200 boats come in, and they know that the CI cliff face is very sharp and very steep. Without them giving us the things to help people with, it is not very fair for us.

If SIEV22l had made it to the island one hour earlier that day, one kilometre further up the coast, all hands would have been lost because there would not have been anybody there to hear people cry for help. If there were somebody there, one kilometre up is a dead zone for cell phones. It is almost fortunate that it happened where it happened because it got the greatest amount of people who could have possibly been helped on that day. If it had happened one week later, most of the residents on that part of the island would have been gone and there may not have been anywhere near as much help. If people in Canberra are asking us to help look after their people, if they give us the best equipment to do that, that will be for that best, because the island people will never say no.

Senator CROSSIN: Mr Su, as you know, I came up to the memorial service and you were the MC for that day. If you were responsible for initiating it and putting together, then you should be very proud of yourself because it was certainly a very appropriate service. I thought the way in which speakers were collected and organised was to your credit. What people will not know is that on that day everyone was asked to pick up a paper flower. From my recollection there were hundreds of paper flowers that people could pick up and place or keep. Did community members make those?

Mr Su : Yes.

Senator CROSSIN: Did the Chinese community predominantly make them or the Malay community as well?

Mr Su : One young Chinese woman made them for us.

Senator CROSSIN: She made all of those? To me that was just an astounding proof of evidence of the contribution that people in this community have made. In finishing: as members of parliament, this committee will be reporting back; is there anything—is there a gap, is there equipment—from your perspective as the key liaison person between DIAC and the community that you think needs attention and that we should turn our minds to?

Mr Su : There are externalities of having the IDC operations here that have been fed back to various consultants over the last year. I believe Territories West have just finished commissioning a report on the socioeconomic impact of the IDC on the Christmas Island community. If items in that report were addressed and a committee or even one person would spearhead and champion some of the recommendations that may appear in that report, that would be excellent. We are being asked to do many things for Immigration and Citizenship, and we need a few resources back to help complete the job that we are asked to do.

Most of the feedback that I have got from my position, especially in the first six months—up until November, I guess—has been that many people thought that, while they see the IDC bringing a lot of economic benefit to the island, it has also changed the island culturally and some would say spiritually as well. I would say most island people are pretty pro having the IDC here, for various reasons. Some like it because it helps them earn more money or gives their wives or their sons a job or they support human rights in general, but it does put a lot of strain on hip pockets sometimes because a lot of prices have gone up quite a lot. When fly-in fly-out workers started coming here with, for us, extravagant pay cheques, we were forced to pay high prices for different items. That is probably the No. 1 thing. No. 2 would be housing, but you will find all that stuff in the report earlier.

In terms of support for asylum seeker boat arrivals, I guess there is a series of studies being done now of what types of boats we need and perhaps how many ambulances it would be good to have on the island and what type of staff we need to have here full time in terms of trauma and counselling and first aid. An overreliance on volunteers is not the way to go.

CHAIR: Thank you, Chris, for coming before the committee and sharing your experiences and thoughts with us. We greatly appreciate that.

Proceedings suspended from 12 : 37 to 13 : 50