I am from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
On the morning of the 15th December 2010, I witnessed the boat tragedy on the cliff face of Christmas Island. The next day, I wrote about it for the local Christmas Island newsletter ‘The Islander’ which is published every fortnight.
I had not been able to sleep at all that night, and wrote the piece at 7.30am the following morning, about 24 hours after the accident happened. The piece was published in the December issue of The Islander 2010. The event has had a long standing impact on the lives of the first responders that day as well as the lifetime of effects that it will have on the survivors. It was the residents who lived by the seaside that provided assistance first, just normal everyday people without the training or calm mindset of a veteran rescue professional.
At the time, Christmas Island was very divided on the boat person issue. We were like a microcosm of the larger nation; there were a number of us who were pro-asylum seekers and their right to seek asylum and there were a number of us vehemently against their coming to Australia. And there were those in the middle who swayed back and forth. The people who responded to help that day were from all sides of the spectrum. There were people who had been publically disdainful of the arrival of boats and these people put their lives on the line on the cliff’s edge throwing out life jackets and other flotation devices. When you are faced with one’s humanity, I guess you can only respond with your own.
On that day, I saw people helping other people. There were no distinctions between navy people, island people or boat people that day. People saw other people who needed help and regardless of whether or not it was their job to come to the rescue, dozens did.
Everyone has feelings, emotion, compassion, loved ones. Especially loved ones. People go to extraordinary lengths for their loved ones. There’s not much a father wouldn’t do to help his family if someone were trying to hurt them. There isn’t much mothers won’t do to protect their children. What was so extraordinary that day is that strangers were prepared to go to such extraordinary lengths to help people who they had never met. I heard of men being held back from diving off the cliff into the monstrous swell who felt the need to help the helpless. I saw human chains teetering on the edge of the cliff to get that extra foot of reach to throw out a lifejacket the furthest they could. I saw men in rescue boats risking their own lives putting themselves between the cliff and the wrecked ship to rescue those in need. For a short time, a stranger became a loved one.
That day won’t ever be forgotten by any person who was there. Island people will be reminded of that day every time they look at the ocean at the Golden Bosun. Front line responders will be taken back to that morning every time they smell diesel. Survivors will remember it every time they reach for a loved one who isn’t there. In the coming weeks, we’ll experience things that we’ll need to talk about, on a national level, on a community level, on a personal level.
We’ll be a nation of people have conversations about other people. And in the middle of it all, again in familiar territory, will be the people of Christmas Island. If people in political, religious or military conflicts around the world could instead show the compassion that we showed on the cliffs that day, what a Christmas it would be.
“We all different. But still same-same one.”