Rescuers have told how they plucked desperate asylum seekers from wild seas that claimed the lives of dozens of boat people attempting to reach Australia for a new life.
The captains of two merchant ships that dashed to answer mayday calls from the overcrowded asylum seeker boat told _The Weekend West _of their crews' bravery in dangerous waters on Thursday evening.
The search for survivors will continue into this afternoon but authorities held little hope last night of rescuing anyone else.
No survivors were found yesterday but many of the 109 asylum seekers saved, including a 13-year-old boy, arrived at Christmas Island in the morning.
Officials have identified five unaccompanied minors among the group.
Only the bodies of three men were recovered but up to 100 people are feared to have drowned when the boat capsized about 185km north-west of Christmas Island in international waters halfway between the island and Indonesia.
The boat had about 200 male passengers, most of whom were believed to be Afghans but some survivors told rescuers they were from Pakistan.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the water temperature was about 29C so experts believed people could survive in the water wearing a lifejacket or clinging to debris for 36 hours.
But that survival window expired overnight.
"They've seen more debris, they've seen lifejackets and unfortunately seen more dead bodies and we need to brace ourselves for more bad news," Mr Clare said.
Several merchant vessels helped navy patrol boats HMAS Larrakia and HMAS Wollongong during the rescue, including the Esperance-bound Cape Oceania.
The cargo ship's master, Xu Liansheng, said that by the time he reached the scene four hours after the mayday call, many people were already in lifeboats. "We just saw empty lifejackets," he said.
His crew's rescue boat spent 90 minutes trawling the rough seas and managed to pull four people out of the water.
Capt. Xu said the four survivors were in good health with the only injury a cut finger.
They were dropped at Christmas Island at 7.30am yesterday.
Each man told the captain he was Pakistani and they gave their names and ages as Asghar, 35, Musadig, 33, Sayed, 25 and Najmul, 22.
He said they pleaded to be taken to Australia and did not want to be returned to Indonesia.
"They were a little bit scared. We gave them some Chinese food and water," Capt. Xu said.
The crew of another merchant ship, the JPO Vulpecula, saved 27 people.
"They were OK. We had two injuries and we handed them over to Christmas Island," Capt. E. Bilango said. "I didn't see many bodies in the water but I saw some lifejackets without people in them."
Refugee groups questioned why authorities failed to respond sooner after it was revealed the boat made a distress call on Tuesday night.
Mr Clare said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had directed the boat to return to Indonesia after the call.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said yesterday was not the day for politics but crossbench MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor urged them to negotiate a compromise to restore offshore processing.
Angry WA Liberal MP Mal Washer said the tragedy made him feel "ashamed" to be part of a Parliament that could not find a bipartisan solution.
"Every option needs to be on the table," Dr Washer said. "Let's get some humanity back and let's get bipartisanship back.
"I'm a doc. This is a tragedy and we believe in prevention.
"We're not clowns. Let's grow up and do something to stop this."
Dr Washer said that if the compromise was processing asylum seekers on both Nauru and Malaysia, "let's do both".
Investigators' efforts to uncover what happened to the boat may be hampered because only one Indonesian crew member was rescued.
It is not clear whether he was the only crew member or if others drowned.
Three survivors were airlifted to Royal Perth Hospital under police guard and three are getting medical treatment at the Christmas Island hospital.
A small number of WA police and emergency services workers had joined the rescue effort, Colin Barnett said.
The Premier said WA was likely to hold a coronial inquest. "It's extremely dangerous, an extremely hazardous undertaking and a human tragedy of great scale," he said.
Up to 20 WA police disaster victim identification specialists are expected to go to Christmas Island today.