The wreck of the raft was a dot on the sea but as our rescue boat approached we saw a woman make an effort to wave, so at least there was life.
Once speed boats launched from the Open Arms drew alongside it was clear she was the only survivor. The woman, who gave her name as Josepha, was brought aboard in a state of deep shock and treated by doctors.
We found her early on July 17 and she told doctors she spent the previous night clinging to wreckage, singing hymns and calling on God for deliverance. Two doctors recounted her story to me.
Face down amid the raft’s loose planks and deflated rubber lay the corpse of a woman in a striped T-shirt and trousers. She had been dead for some time, medics said.
Then there was a four-year-old boy, who the boat’s doctors said died hours before.
The crew lifted the bodies onto the Open Arms, covered them and put them on ice on deck. Emotions swung from a sense of accomplishment at the rescue to sadness.
I spent 29 days taking pictures on the flagship rescue boat of Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms as it patrolled the designated Search and Rescue zone off the coast of Libya. Click here for a photo essay – reut.rs/2vAi36G.
In that time, we saw no other rescue boats and crew said there were none active in the zone. Reuters was unable to verify this.
The rescue was just one drama in a migration of almost 1.8 million people across the Mediterranean from the Middle East and Africa since 2014 that has seen hundreds of thousands embark from Libya on small boats, according to United Nations figures.
Thousands drowned and boats like the Open Arms, a retired 36-metre tugboat built in 1973, took up the task of offering rescue.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
After being lifted aboard the Open Arms and during her medical examination, Josepha told doctors she was from Cameroon.
She did not give her last name or any details of her story or explain who the other passengers on the raft were. It was unclear how the raft was damaged.
Locating migrants adrift is like finding a needle in a haystack, but on the night of July 16 crew got lucky as they scanned radio frequencies.
Just before 9pm we heard a commercial ship, Triades, tell Libyan coastguard they saw a raft adrift. The captain swung the Open Arms toward its reported location and spotted the remains of the raft early the next day.
After the rescue, it was three and a half days before we arrived at the only harbour that would take her, Spain’s Palma de Mallorca. By the time we reached land, she was still unable to walk unassisted.
The drama did not end there.
The founder of Open Arms, Oscar Camps, filed a lawsuit in Palma accusing the captain of Triades and the captain of the Libyan coastguard of involuntary manslaughter and failing to help migrants.
Under international maritime law, ships should attempt the rescue of anyone in danger at sea.
In Spain, an accuser files a lawsuit with the local court, in this case in Palma, and the presiding judge decides whether to take the case further.
The court in Palma said the claim was being processed and an investigating magistrate had not yet been assigned.
The Triades, a merchant ship flying a Panamanian flag and owned by Greek shipping company Newport SA, was docked at the Turkish port Dortyol on Monday.
Newport declined to comment. Reuters could not contact the captain of the Triades through Newport, which declined to give the captain’s contact details, or through port authorities at Dortyol.
Reuters talked to Ibrahim Ozen, a general manager at Global Container Line, a company providing information about port activities, for contact with the ship.
Ozen said he would attempt to reach someone on the Triades. He had not replied by Monday and did not respond to further questions.
A spokeswoman for Open Arms said Josepha would answer no further questions because of the lawsuit.
Camps said radio traffic between the Triades and Libya coastguard showed the ship’s crew saw the raft but failed to provide help. I heard the radio exchange between the Triades and the coastguard which corroborates Camps’ account.
Camps accused Italy and Malta of refusing to let Open Arms dock after the rescue, forcing it to make a longer journey to Spain. Italy said this was not the case and accused the charity of lying about the circumstances of the rescue.
In a Twitter post, Italy’s interior minister denied the country refused to let Open Arms dock with Josepha and the bodies on board.
“Despite the willingness of our Sicilian ports to let the boat dock the NGO ship is going to Spain,” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Twitter.
Camps, citing Josepha’s account, said the Libyan coastguard abandoned the three migrants amid the shattered remains of the raft because they refused to board their patrol ship. It was unclear how the raft came to be partially destroyed.
Libya’s coastguard denied in a statement it abandoned the raft at sea.
“It is not in our religion, our ethics or our conduct to abandon human lives at sea, where we only came to save them,” it said in a statement that also disputed Camps’ version of events.