Australia yesterday called off the search for bodies from last week’s horrific asylum-seeker shipwreck, as the prime minister said about 48 people had died and warned that the exact toll might never be known.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the “best estimate” was that about 90 people were on the wooden fishing boat that shattered on rocks at remote Christmas Island last on Wednesday last week in a storm, as helpless residents looked on.
Only 42 people were rescued before the search for survivors was called off late on Friday.
“We may never know the precise number, but the advice to me is that the best estimate at present is that there were around 90 people on the boat,” Gillard told reporters, quoting police figures. “That does mean of course that we are still not able to account for around 18 people.”
Thirty bodies were retrieved after the accident, including a number of babies and children, before the search was terminated -yesterday on “advice from experienced police divers that no further bodies would be found,” customs officials said.
It is the worst disaster involving an asylum-seeker boat bound for Australia since the sinking of the SIEV-X off Indonesia in 2001, when all 353 on board died.
Gillard said it might never be known “absolutely, certainly, how many people were on the boat,” with authorities relying on accounts of survivors to try and establish how many people are still missing and their identities.
She said the increased toll “is obviously very, very grim news and I am sure that Australians are today continuing to reflect on this tragedy.”
Survivors say the vessel was packed with Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds when it foundered on a rocky outcrop at Christmas Island, the site of Australia’s main immigration detention center about 2,600km from the continent.
The grim task of identifying the victims was underway at the hospital morgue yesterday.
Police have interviewed three Indonesian crewmen rescued after the crash and expect to lay charges, though they have declined to comment on whether these will include manslaughter.
One survivor whose husband and young son are missing told the West Australian newspaper the crew cut the boat’s engine as it approached the island’s rugged coast, assuring passengers the navy would come to their rescue.