A Tireless Search In The Immensity Of The Mediterranean

Late in the day, when the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) crew enjoy some free time after dinner to go out on deck, talk to their families, or watch a movie in the common room, the team leader from rescue Ani Montes receives a call from the command bridge. Soon after there is a change in the sound of the engines.

The Geo Barents , which is 30 miles off the Libyan coast, changes course. Around 10:30 p.m. the MSF ship receives an email from the NGO Alarm Phone, an organization that has a telephone staffed by volunteers that migrant boats with a problem at sea can call and notify them.

It warns that two boats with about 100 people on board are in danger. Alarm Phone informs all ships in the area and the authorities of Libya, Malta and Italy of the time of the call and the position , if they have it. The more details they receive from the boat, the better an estimate of their position can be made, for example, if they have come across a fishing boat or seen an oil rig during their journey.

In this case, they have said little more than the time they received the notice and the place of departure: at 6.30 p.m. they were 35 miles north of the Libyan city of Homs .

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The command bridge is already dark. The only illumination is the light from the radar screens, the navigator and the positioning GPS and other instruments arranged on a dark blue U-shaped counter around two large black leather seats where the Geo Barents duty officer sits.

Ani Montes walks from one side to the other checking what the lights seen in the distance correspond to, making calculations to change the course to where the boats may be and controlling the other boats that may be in the area, fishing boats, freighters or the Libyan Coast Guard.

He approaches the windows, takes the binoculars, and discusses the situation with those who are standing guard. Ángel Lizama, a member of the rescue team, who started his shift at 1.00, moves the light cannon making a sweep, illuminating the sea. Montes takes minute by minute notes of what is happening. He wears a red light on his neck that allows him to have some visibility, although little by little his eyes get used to the darkness.

At around 1.50 the Geo Barents reaches the position where they think the boats could be and begins tracking at an average speed of seven knots, somewhat higher than what these operations usually do. Montes explains that “to do the search it is better to go more slowly, but since we do not have more information on the coordinates and it is a giant pattern, if we go at a slower speed it would take 13 hours” to comb the area.

Taking into account the little information available, Montes decides to trace a route of rectangular east-west streets with a radius of about 15 miles (27 kilometers), while the ship moves south-north. “Since the only information was that it was 35 miles north of Homs, north is the middle of the pattern and then it extends 5 or 6 miles on each side.”

Montes explains another detail that affects the calculation of the search: “The pattern is made [taking into account that they go] with a motor because if the motor stops it would completely change [its location] because the waves push towards the west. If it is without a motor, it can be anywhere ”.

Weather conditions get worse the closer you get to the south. There are waves of meter and a half near the coast, which makes it even more difficult for the boats to have been able to leave the coast and have advanced 35 nautical miles (64.82 kilometers). Montes has to make many decisions and very quickly. He does it with the confidence that comes from having years of experience in search and rescue missions ; without losing your cool. “When you do a search pattern without data you have two options and you have to choose one of them.”

The MSF team detects a small boat at about 3.5 miles on the radar, but when checking its characteristics in the AIS (Automatic Identification System) it identifies it as a fishing vessel. On the horizon you can see two other lights that maintain their position with the naked eye.

Also fishing. At various times during the night, messages from the Libyan Coast Guard are heard on the VHF radio for open marine band. At this moment the head of the mission, Barbara Deck, also ascends to the command bridge, attentive to communications. The hunt continues.

The journalist Sergio Scandura, who exhaustively follows the radars where the activity of the planes of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and the vessels operating in the rescue zone (SAR, Search and Rescue) is reflected. ), warns that there is an Osprey plane following a search pattern over the Libyan SAR area, from the eastern part of Tripoli, Homs and Zliten, in the same area where the Geo Barents is . This may be a clue.

At 3:00 am Thomas Olufson comes up for the binocular surveillance relay. He receives information from his colleagues about what they have detected so far and begins to search the horizon from one side to the other. Montes is still on the command bridge, starting at 6 am he will have eyes in the sky again with the aerial inspection carried out by Colibrí de Pilotes Volontaires.

At 7.12 am Alarm Phone sends an email in which it indicates that a relative of the people who traveled in the boats that left Homs has contacted them to say that the two boats returned independently to the point of origin. The mission, at least for the moment, is over.

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