The day the luck ran out: How migrant tragedy unfolded while people looked on

Hours before the disaster, the French police had stood and watched; done nothing to prevent a flimsy rubber dinghy from launching into the Channel for the perilous journey to Britain. 

They had turned a blind eye, seemingly unconcerned by the huge risks being taken by the 40 or so desperate migrants, carrying the vessel into the water. An alarming photograph showed police officers watching the people smugglers putting their human cargo to sea and failing to intervene. That boat, on that occasion, made it.

Another, launching a few miles away from close to Calais, did not.

Wednesday was the day everyone had predicted and been dreading. At just after 1pm, a French fisherman came across the horror of corpses – 15 bodies at first glance – floating on the English Channel. Ominously, there was no boat to be seen; no wreckage to cling on to. 

France’s interior minister would later describe the boat as “very fragile”, adding by way of explanation: “It was like a pool you blow up in your garden.”

‘Their days are numbered’

Small boat debris on the beach in Wimereux near Calais as migrants continue to launch small boats along the coastline

Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

In extremely cold temperatures – the water reckoned to be no more than 10C at most – survival time would be limited, even for those with life jackets.

The seas had been calm, the wind largely still and with winter approaching, Wednesday must have seemed like a good day for migrants to reach Britain. This year, almost 26,000 men, women and children have safely negotiated the Dover Strait, the world’s busiest shipping lane.

They were the lucky ones. Wednesday showed that the luck has to run out.

The fishing vessel that found the corpses put out a mayday signal, triggering a huge emergency response. French and British coastguards, naval ships and helicopters raced to the scene. What they found were more bodies, including at least one child and five women, and just two survivors although ominously they were not expected to make it. 

“Their days are numbered,” said France’s interior minister.

On Wednesday night, the official death toll reached 31, with at least one other passenger on the dinghy unaccounted for. It is thought to be the greatest single loss of life in the English Channel since the Second World War.

Matt Cocker, a Dover fishing skipper out in the Channel on his boat Portia, had heard the mayday call. He was too far away to help, but listened to the tragedy as it unfolded.

“A French fishing vessel must have gone past and they alerted their coastguard. They initially reported 15 bodies in the water,” he said, speaking from out at sea. “The scenes must have been desperate. Awful. Picking bodies out of the water for anyone is the end of things and you don’t want to be doing it.”

His onboard radar did not appear to show other boats in the immediate vicinity of the stricken boat – about six miles north of Calais in French waters – suggesting, he said, it had not been hit by a larger vessel.

More likely, the boat was overloaded and either split or sank under the weight of its passengers. One big wave might have been enough to force it under.

‘They don’t stand a chance’

A damaged inflatable dinghy and a sleeping bag abandonned by migrants are seen on the beach near Wimereux

Credit: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

“These are really cheaply made flimsy craft. You can barely call them boats,” said Mr Cocker. “It was absolutely flat, with probably about 30 migrant boats taking advantage of the best weather for days to cross. But the traffickers put them in cheap plastic inflatables. 

“They’re not proper boats. They overload them and they split and deflate and the people end up in the water. They often don’t have life jackets. They don’t stand a chance.”

Earlier in the day, Nicolas Margolle, a French fisherman, said he had seen two small dinghies; one with people on board and another empty. It is unclear if the empty boat was the stricken craft. With at least eight dinghies making the crossing successfully on Wednesday, it is unclear if Mr Margolle was witnessing the disaster unfold and had not realised it.

Mr Margolle said that another fisherman had later called rescue services after seeing 15 people floating motionless nearby, either unconscious or dead.

Three helicopters and three boats were deployed in the initial search, local authorities said. That included a British helicopter from the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Dover along with a French naval helicopter and patrol vessel, a police boat and a lifeboat.

It appears two bodies were pulled out of the water, still conscious but badly suffering from hypothermia. The survivors, should they pull through, will be key to piecing together what happened.

The race against time

Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, at a press conference on Wednesday night

Credit: Francois Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images

Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said at a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday night that search operations would continue through the night, although few had hope of finding anyone alive. Four people, accused of being the people smugglers who had sent the migrants to their deaths, were arrested in connection with the tragedy.

Mr Darmanin said that the victims had ended up in the water after the boat had sunk: “It was a very fragile boat. When life boats arrived, it was already as deflated as a blow-up paddling pool in a garden.”

He said that on the blackest of days, 255 migrants had made it safely across the sea and, defending his country’s record, that 671 were stopped from doing so or else arrested. An army of 780 police and gendarmes were monitoring the northern French coast, he added.

“What happened today to our knowledge is that 31 people were drowned between Calais and Dunkirk,” he said. “There are two people who have been saved, and their days are numbered.

“Amongst the 31 dead, as far as we know five were women and one was a little girl. We don’t have any more information with regards to those people. We will carry on searching in the hours to come to see if there are any more people.”

A heavy price to pay

A group of more than 40 migrants with children get on an inflatable dinghy, as they leave the coast of northern France to cross the Channel, near Wimereux

Credit: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

The migrants will have paid a few thousand euros for a voyage in a death trap, likely coming from Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa or Asia. Their goal, having finally reached northern French shores, is the UK.

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the president and chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, called for heads to be banged together in the UK and EU to find a solution, warning that more fatalities would inevitably follow. 

“The sea is very, very cold. There is little chance of survival,” said Mr Puissesseau, “Traffickers are assassins. We were waiting for something like this to happen.

“Even if the sea is not looking so rough, in the middle, there are always many waves. It is dangerous. That can happen again because they try everything to get to your country. That’s why I am very upset. I don’t know what to do.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the corpses were starting to arrive at the Paul-Devot quayside in Calais where the bodies of recovered migrants are usually taken. 

About 20 emergency service vehicles along with port authorities were in situ and leave for firefighters, needed in the operation, was cancelled. Police cordoned off the area and a special motorised hoist brought to the scene to bring the bodies on to dry land.

The blame game

Protesters in Calais, with a placard reading ‘30 years of announcements, of inhuman and degrading treatment’, on Wednesday night hours after the disaster

Credit: Francois Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images

As the bodies were being removed, the blame game was starting up.

Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais said: “This is the fault of Boris Johson, who is forcing our country to endure this set-up because he doesn’t have the courage himself to assume responsibilities in his country.”

However, in the UK, it was for many the French authorities who were at fault. 

“Part of the problem is the French have not taken it seriously enough because there have been so few casualties and they have been able to turn a blind eye,” said Tim Loughton, the Tory MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and a member of the Commons home affairs committee. 

“The consequences tragically are that 20 or more migrants have lost their lives in French waters and those migrants could have been stopped from getting in the water in the first place.”

Tony Smith, the former director general of the Border Force, said: “I am so angry. I have told everybody that people are going to drown. This is not about immigration. It’s about people dying and we are letting them die.

“These are vulnerable people in danger. [But] the French don’t take that view. They are not saving lives. They are basically allowing unsafe boats to sail off into territorial waters which is their responsibility. For me it is squarely on the shoulders of the French.”

At 5am on Wednesday morning, presumably at a time when the fateful dinghy was being loaded up to set sail for the UK, another was being launched into the water at Wimereux, a seaside town just north of Boulogne and about 30 miles from Calais.

A photographer had caught the boat being dragged to the sea while a police vehicle with two officers inside looked on, doing nothing. 

That boat made it. The one up the coast did not. With horrible, horrible consequences.

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