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Ashmore Reef explosion inquiry questions Navy -

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Ashmore Reef explosion inquiry questions Navy's conduct

Broadcast: 17/02/2010

Reporter: Murray McLaughlin

An inquest into the deaths of five asylum seekers on board a boat which exploded at sea while under
Navy control last April is drawing to a close. The boat carrying 47 passengers was just off Ashmore
Reef and the Northern Territory Coroner has said it was a miracle that the death toll was not
higher. Evidence about the mass rescue has revealed heroic behaviour but also raised questions
about how the Navy conducted the operation.


KERRY O'BRIEN: After three and a half weeks of sometimes harrowing evidence, an inquest in Darwin
into the deaths of five asylum seekers off Ashmore Reef in April last year is now in its final

The dead were among forty seven passengers on board a boat now known as SIEV 36, which exploded at
sea while under the control of the Australian Navy.

The Northern Territory Coroner has already said it was a miracle the death toll wasn't higher.

Nine defence force personnel who were on board SIEV 36 at the time all survived the explosion,
apparently triggered after the boat's engines were sabotaged and petrol poured into the bilge.

Evidence about the mass rescue has revealed heroic behaviour, but has also raised questions about
how the Navy conducted the operation.

Murray McLaughlin has tracked the inquest for this report from Darwin.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: After this Indonesian fishing boat was sighted by the Navy on the morning of 15
April last year, it was named SIEV 36 by Australia's border protection command.

SIEV is an acronym for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel. SIEV 36 had 47 asylum seekers onboard, one
from Iran, the rest from Afghanistan.

They'd paid between US$6,000 and US$15,000 for their passage to Australia. They'd been at sea for
several days before the navy found them near the islands of Ashmore Reef off the northwest coast of
the Australian mainland, a favoured drop off point for people smugglers.

A boarding party from the navy patrol boat Albany took control for SIEV 36 about 10 o'clock in the

LT CDR BARRY LEAROYD, PATROL BOAT HMAS ALBANY (17 April 2009): I was in control of the vessel for
approximately 24 hours and none of the people onboard that vessel at the time showed any concerns.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: A coronial inquest sitting in Darwin for the past three and a half weeks has
heard that calm continued to prevail on SIEV 36 till the morning.

During that time, the crew and passengers were processed by the navy boarding party. A doctor
treated the sick, food and water were provided.

SIEV 36 itself was taken under tow by the patrol boat Albany. The plan was to stay in a holding
pattern at Ashmore Reef until a navy transport ship, the Tobruk, arrived from Darwin to take the
asylum seekers on to the immigration detention centre at Christmas Island, not that they knew their
exact destination.

BARRY LEAROYD (17 April 2009): At no time were the asylum seekers told that they were going to be
taken to Christmas Island. We were keeping them informed as to what we were doing, with regards to
providing medical support - which we did. We put a medical officer onboard.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The Indonesian captain of SIEV 36 was served a formal notice that his boat had
been detained under the Migration Act.

Somehow, a warning notice, known as a K-64, was also issued.

PROF DON ROTHWELL, INTERNATIONAL LAW, ANU: The K-64 is really a notice that would be read if a
vessel was detected approaching the Australian mainland or Australian islands, out within the
Australian Exclusive Economic Zone.

Because the effect of the K-64 is really to warn the Master and crew that they may be committing an
offence under Australian law and that really, it's in their best interests to return to the place
from which they've come.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Given that SIEV 36 was already within Australian waters and that its crew and
passengers were to be taken to Christmas Island, the warning notice, with its advice to turn back
to Indonesia, should not have been issued.

Come dawn on the second day of the detention of SIEV 36 at Ashmore Reef, the asylum seekers somehow
found the notice and one of the translated it to the others.

LINDSAY MURDOCH, FAIRFAX NEWSPAPERS: At 7:20, all hell started to break lose, because it's clear
now that the asylum seekers became aware of a notice telling them - the crew, the Indonesian crew,
to take the boat back to Indonesian waters.

Now, that-that caused a lot of agitation and from then on in, it was all downhill.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Journalist Lindsay Murdoch has attended the inquest in Darwin for the past three
and a half weeks.

LINDSAY MURDOCH: Pretty soon after that, the engine was sabotaged. There was a lot of shouting: "No
Indonesia!" A lot of cut-throat gestures. The crew were getting threatened.

The navy sounded a high alert and they-they started to wave the refugees toward the front of the
boat. At this point, the smell of petrol was very, very strong.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The high alert brought a back up party from the patrol boat Childers, just 60
metres off. That meant that 9 ADF personnel were now onboard the ill-fated SIEV 36, clouded in
petrol vapours.

They'd pay the price of a sloppy search by their colleagues the day before.

(Ominous music)

LINDSAY MURDOCH: When the boarding party first came aboard on the day before the explosion, on the
15th, they did not take cigarettes and lighters.

There was diesel, unleaded petrol and kerosene onboard. The most volatile fuel, that started the
explosion, were the unleaded petrol. And that was not secured.

The boat was not, uh, properly searched and that fuel was not secured, which is critical.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Five asylum seekers died that day, two of their bodies have not been recovered.

Two navy patrol boats were on hand at the time: the Childers, just 60 meters away, the Albany about
a kilometre away. They dispatched four inflatable boats to the rescue.

At the opening of the inquest, counsel assisting the coroner said that navy policy required their
own personnel to be rescued first. He suggested that, notwithstanding the explosion, the deaths
might have been avoided if a less rigid policy had been adopted.

No evidence of the existence of such a strict policy emerged during the inquest.

NEIL JAMES, AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE ASSOCIATION: Quite frankly, it's a common sense thing, because in
any team, if you're going to maintain any form of team cohesion, team members have to know that the
others will look after them in stressful and dangerous situations.

If they can't rely on their mates, then you'll just have total team breakdown. And in this
particular case, it makes eminent sense to rescue the rescuers first anyway.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: In its early days, the inquest focussed on the rescue of this woman, an Air
force medic, Sharon Jager.

LINDSAY MURDOCH: There was three men on an inflatable boat who kicked towards one or two asylum
seekers, who were clinging to the boat, trying to compete with a medic, who was in trouble in the

She's terrified, trying to get into the boat. They did rescue their own first, but there was a
great deal of heroism by the ADF members in the rescue.

DON ROWE, RSL DEPUTY NATIONAL PRESIDENT: Well, I think the inquiry's been extremely hard on those
serving the Defence Force, particularly those who put their lives at risk to save these people who
deliberately blew up their own boat.

You know, surely to goodness, if you - if something like that's happened, the first thing you're
going to do, you're going to save your mate to help... At least he's going to be able to help you
then to rescue those people onboard.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The Northern Territory Coroner, Greg Cavanagh, who toured a patrol boat in
Darwin during the course of his inquest, has made frequent references in court to bravery by Navy

Whether his counsel assisting still thinks that the Australian Defence Force might need to
reconsider its so-called strict practice of going to the rescue of its own in time of emergency
will likely be known tomorrow, when he makes final submissions.

One observer thinks that the navy's reputation has already taken a beating.

NEIL JAMES: It's very unfair. And they were placed in a situation where they're criticised in the
open press and they're really not allowed to answer back.

And, uh, I think everyone who understands the situation would say, "Let's wait and see what the
coroner decides and what all- what comes out when all the evidence comes out", rather than people
jumping to hasty conclusions about the navy supposedly stuffing up.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Today, the 18th day of the inquest, Navy Captain Vaughn Rixon was the final

He outlined the outcomes of an internal review conducted after the SIEV 36 explosion. Many of the
recommendations are already in force: rules about securing flammable liquids beyond the reach of
crew and passengers of SIEVs have been strengthened; searches for weapons now specifically include
lighters and matches; and boarding parties are issued with portable metal detectors.

New cards in 14 languages which incorporate reassuring statements to calm anxiety among arriving
boat passengers, and warning notices such as that which provoked the unrest on SIEV 36 are not to
be issued.

Closing addresses will be presented to the coroner tomorrow and he's expected to bring down his
findings within a month.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Murray McLaughlin with that report.