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Christmas Island tragedy left more dead than alive
Christmas Island tragedy left 'more dead than alive'

A navy commander has described carrying out the dangerous sea rescue that saw 41 shocked and wounded survivors plucked from hazardous waters during the Christmas Island boat tragedy.

Lieutenant Commander Mitchell Livingstone today told a Perth inquest that officers aboard the rescue boats involved had dealt with survivors suffering injuries including internal bleeding, head trauma, hypothermia and shock.

The Lieutenant Commander had been aboard one of the vessels that launched inflatable rescue boats during the disaster which saw up to 50 people killed after a ship carrying 89 asylum seekers smashed against cliffs on December 15.

The witness today described seeing a "small girl wrapped in a blanket lapsing in and out of consciousness" among the wounded and the HMAS Pirie's deck had been covered in blanket-clad survivors.

Lieutenant Commander Livingstone told the inquest one of the issues for the crew had been preventing the survivors from seeing the dead bodies that were also being recovered from the water.

At the time his vessel had launched the rescue boats, the crew had no idea whether they would be boarding the boat of asylum seekers to take them into custody or dealing with a rescue situation, he said.

But as the inflatable boats arrived at the scene, it was clear the situation was dire.

"The reports from the (inflatable boats) was that there were less survivors and more deceased," Lieutenant Commander Livingstone said.

The inquest was told the recovery of survivors from the inflatable boats in tricky conditions had been the fastest experienced by the Lieutenant Commander - even in ideal seas.

Difficulties during the daring rescue had included huge swells and rough, sometimes unsurveyed seas, which meant they couldn't take the most direct route to the cliffs.

A minute after the HMAS Pirie had ordered the launch of its two rescue boats, it had suffered an automatic engine shut-down as a result of debris affecting a propeller.

The set-back meant the ship had to travel at a slower speed.

During the rescue of survivors, both inflatable boats had experienced engine trouble.

Lieutenant-Commander Livingstone said one of the considerations during the operation had been not to overload the rescue boats with too many desperate survivors because of the small space and the risk "they might try to take control".

At one point, swells had meant those rescued had to be offloaded one at a time, with the vessel forced to move back and forth to the boat ramp for each survivor.

Crews had returned to the scene to search for further survivors or bodies, which were expected to be swept further along the coastline.

The Lieutentant Commander described seeing the remnants of the timber ship, including an upturned hull, life jackets and canvas material, drifting away. No more survivors were found.

The inquest continues.

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