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Adriana migrant boat

A surveillance aircraft captures footage of the Adriana in distress with hundreds of migrants aboard on June 13. (European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex)

A Closer Look At the Migrant Boat Disaster Off Greece

John Konrad
Total Views: 2973
July 14, 2023

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) On June 13, a grim and preventable disaster unfolded in the Mediterranean Sea. A fishing trawler known as the Adriana, overburdened with around 750 migrants, capsized after officials watched and listened for 13 hours as the boat lost power and stability. The incident led to one of the deadliest Mediterranean shipwrecks in years, and raised serious questions about the actions – and inactions – of the Greek coast guard.

The Adriana had departed for Italy from a port in eastern Libya on June 9. The boat was so overcrowded that some passengers described being in disbelief at the sheer number of people on board. On the morning of June 13, the first distress call was placed as water supplies had run out and conditions on board were rapidly deteriorating. Contrary to the Greek coast guard’s assessment that the boat was moving steadily and its passengers did not want help, an investigation by Imogen Piper and Joyce Sohyun Lee at the Washington Post points to a more complex scenario.

Washington Post Findings

Passenger recollections reveal that the boat’s speed fluctuated dramatically, corresponding with engine problems, leading it to circle back on its route. Maritime rescue veterans and legal experts argue that Greek officials took advantage of signs indicating aid was not wanted and neglected their duty to launch an all-hands rescue operation as soon as the Adriana was identified as being in a precarious situation. Instead, the Greek coast guard sent a helicopter and enlisted nearby tankers for assistance. However, until the baot capsized, there was no high-priority rescue operation, and the situation on the Adriana only worsened.

Survivors claim the boat capsized while being towed by the coast guard, but the coast guard contends the boat capsized due to a panic-induced shift in weight. Disagreements about the moments leading up to the tragedy form the crux of the controversy surrounding the Adriana’s final hours. However, one fact is abundantly clear: this disaster was avoidable.

Contrary to the coast guard’s accounts, Adriana was not moving steadily. The Post’s investigations, which involved satellite imagery and vessel traffic data, suggest that the vessel’s speed and course were erratic. Video of the boat shows it barely making way despite copious amounts of white smoke suggesting the engine was struggling and possibly overheating. Survivors recounted repeated engine failure on the last day, corroborating The Post’s findings. Their pleas for help and signals of distress were largely overlooked or dismissed by the Greek coast guard.

The coast guard defended its non-intervention by stating that the passengers on the Adriana rejected help. The passengers’ reluctance to accept help likely stemmed from fear. Greek authorities are infamous for aggressively pushing migrant boats out of their search-and-rescue area. The survivors’ accounts of interactions with the coast guard personnel, some of whom were wearing balaclavas, are chilling reminders of these practices.

Regardless of whether the passengers wanted help, maritime and legal experts argue that the coast guard had an obligation to intervene once the precarious situation was recognized. The coast guard’s decision to withhold a full-scale rescue operation, despite distress calls and observable signs of overcrowding, engine trouble, and erratic alterations in course is a haunting testament to this lapse in responsibility.

In light of these findings, the Greek coast guard’s claims that the Adriana was moving at a steady speed and course and didn’t want help should come under severe scrutiny.

An Unstable Situation

Through rigorous analysis conducted by gCaptain, we’ve determined that the foremost contributing factor in the Adriana’s fateful journey was overcrowding and a lack of training or incompetence by the boat’s captain and crew. The vessel seemed to be riding unusually high in the water, a clear indication of it carrying an insufficient amount of ballast. Though the reasons behind this decision to remove ballast remain unclear, one plausible explanation could be an attempt to reduce the weight borne by the already overburdened engine.

It’s worth noting that water carries substantial weight, and without an adequate amount of ballast, the cargo’s movement assumes primary influence over the boat’s stability. In the Adriana’s case, the most significant cargo was the human lives on board, their movements dictated by fear and anticipation.

Crowd Management Training

During emergencies, particularly in overcrowded situations, crowd management becomes an essential factor in maintaining control and ensuring safety. For this reason, officers aboard cruise ships and ferries undergo specific STCW (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) training in crowd management.

In instances where large crowds need to be managed on a ship, maintaining calm and orderly conduct can prove challenging. Common catalysts include queues at events, public gathering areas, or perilous circumstances like storms and fires. The ability to control such situations is critical, as even the most composed crowds can quickly devolve into chaos in extraordinary circumstances.

A factor often overlooked is the ship’s stability, greatly affected by where the weight is placed. Positioning weight lower can improve stability, but persuading hundreds of terrified passengers to stay below deck, especially in an environment with loud and overheating engines, can prove to be a formidable challenge.

Moreover, the free surface effect — the mechanism where water pools on the lower side, increasing the list, can also apply to people as they instinctively crowd the lower side as the vessel lists. If a rescue vessel approaches, passengers often move upwards and towards it, increasing the vertical placement of the body weight. This acts as a lever, further tipping the boat.

No Command Authority

The antidote to such issues lies in crowd management training and strong command and control. Unfortunately, fishing boat crews, tanker crews (two tankers pulled aside the boat prior to the Coast Guard towing, the M/V Faithful Warrior and Lucky Sailor. The luxury yacht Mayan Queen IV was called in after the capsize to rescue passengers), and even coast guard boat crews are not mandated to have crowd management training. Clear leadership traits, training, and experience are required for effective command authority, elements that were evidently lacking aboard the Adriana.

To complicate matters, excited passengers tend to exacerbate the situation when a coast guard boat draws near, creating a predicament akin to a Catch-22 for the rescuers.

Given the relatively calm weather and the presence of two tankers with ample room to temporarily board passengers, this calamity was entirely preventable. If passengers could have been convinced to remain calm and stay below decks, an orderly evacuation might have been feasible.

Hindsight

Though hindsight is 20/20, reflecting on the incident suggests a possible alternative outcome. In the early stages, before the capsize, the deployment of a rescue swimmer and a senior coast guard officer in civilian clothing (or sinple, non-hostile looking, coveralls) via a small rescue boat might have made all the difference. The officer could have outlined the gravity of the situation, alleviated concerns about potential legal repercussions post-rescue, and established the necessary command authority for an orderly evacuation of the passengers without triggering panic. It might have also been possible for the a Coast Guard officer, once aboard, to order the taking on of ballast to improve stability, while the addition of a mechanic might have helped troubleshoot the engine.

Conclusion

Finally, questions remain about what triggered Adriana’s fatal capsizing. While the coast guard blames panic-induced weight shifting among the passengers, survivors claim that the patrol boat’s attempted towing led to the disaster. Some experts have suggested to gCaptain that both contributed to the cause. Regardless, there was time prior to capsizing to slowly and safely evacuate the boat if, and it’s a big if, the passengers could have been convinced to follow orders and coorperate. Most troubling however, is this is not the first time that the Greek coast guard has been accused of causing a migrant boat to sink due to reckless action.

The tragedy of the Adriana, despite its scale, might only be a glimpse of the suffering many migrants face on their perilous journeys. The incident underscores the urgent need for improved migrant rescue operations and better adherence to international maritime law. Most crucially, it highlights the importance of humanity and compassion in dealing with some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals.

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