The crew of a British fishing boat helped prevent what could have been a much larger tragedy when they rescued more than 30 migrants from the waters of the Channel, with some people clinging to a rope before being hauled on to the vessel.
Raymond Strachan, skipper of the trawler Arcturus, said his crew pulled 31 “screaming” migrants from the water in freezing temperatures after their dinghy began to sink in the middle of the Channel in the dark early hours of Wednesday.
Four people died and dozens were rescued from the inflatable dinghy, which was trying to make the dangerous journey at the coldest time – the middle of the night when the temperature was below freezing.
Some survivors are being treated in hospital and a search operation has resumed.
“It was like something out of a Second World War movie, there were people in the water everywhere, screaming,” Strachan told Sky News. “I steamed towards the dinghy and we secured it with a rope to the side of the boat. We were trying to pull them off the dinghy.”
The response contrasts with an incident a year ago, when British and French emergency coastguards spent hours deciding which of them should rescue a stricken small boat instead of rushing to save the people onboard, according to British and French media reports.
At least 17 men, seven women and three children died in the incident as their dinghy deflated after setting off from France in November last year. Five people remain missing and two survived.
Images taken from aboard the fishing boat on Wednesday showed a partially deflated dinghy as a number of people, some wearing life vests, cling to the side of the vessel.
Strachan said he had been sleeping when he was awoken by a member of the trawler crew who told him “there are migrants alongside the boat”.
“I stopped my boat and ran outside and along the port side there were five of them hanging off the side of my boat,” he said.
Strachan said his crew spent two hours pulling people from the water. He said those he rescued came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Senegal and India.
“We stripped all their wet clothes off, and my crew gave them any clothes they had to keep them warm,” he said. “We put them in beds to keep them warm, with quilts, to get their body temperature up slowly.”
Temperatures in Britain have dropped below freezing for several days and conditions in the Channel grow treacherous during the winter months.
A French charity Utopia 56 said they raised the alarm with the French coastguard early in the morning after receiving a distressed voice message apparently from the dinghy.
“Please help me bro, please, please, please,” the person said in the message.
Cries can be heard in the background of the 22-second recording as the person said: “We are in a boat and we have a problem. We have children and a family in a boat. Water is coming in but we don’t have anything for it, for feeling safety.”
Wednesday’s incident is the deadliest since the 27 people died last year.
French police are considering charging members of the French coastguard with charges of negligence over that tragedy, Le Monde newspaper has reported.
Multiple distress calls were made to French and British coastguards before the boat was found in French waters in the early hours of Nov. 24 last year, Le Monde said last month.
However, despite receiving the calls, no French rescue boats were initially sent to provide assistance, Le Monde said.
In one dispatch, when a man said he was in the water the French operator reportedly told him: “Yes, but you are in English waters.”
The French and British coastguard did not respond to a request for comment on that incident.
The British government says the root of the problem is criminal people-smuggling gangs who charge migrants several thousand dollars for the passage but pack them onto flimsy boats with little regard for their safety.