Mayday call captures moment coastguard calls for help after boat capsizes in English Channel killing 27 people

·8-min read
Mayday call captures moment coastguard calls for help after boat capsizes in English Channel killing 27 people

A distressing mayday call by the French coastguard responding to a boat capsizing in the English Channel that killed at least 27 people has emerged.

The audio clip, which was obtained by Sky News, captures the dramatic moment French coastguard put out an alert to all boats in the area to rescue people who had fallen into the sea.

The radio operator provides the capsized boat’s coordinates and requests that any nearby vessels attend to help, as there are 15 people in the water.

In the clip, the operator can be heard saying: “Mayday relay, mayday relay, mayday relay. This is Gris-Nez emergency, Gris-Nez emergency, Gris-Nez emergency.

“Information number one: Mayday. 15 man overboard, approximately. 15 man overboard.”

They add: “All ships in this area are requested to have a [unclear] lookout to proceed to this area to take contact and report any information to Gris-Nez emergency co-ordinating this operation.”

Twenty-seven people - 17 men, seven women, two teenage boys and a girl, died near Calais while trying to cross from France to the UK in a dinghy.

Two people survived and were taken to hospital with hypothermia.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday evening he had written to French president Emmanuel Macron to set out five steps to prevent Channel crossings and avoid a repeat of the tragedy.

They are joint patrols to prevent more boats from leaving French beaches; deploying more advanced technology, like sensors and radar; reciprocal maritime patrols in each other's territorial waters and airborne surveillance; deepening the work of our Joint Intelligence Cell, with better real-time intelligence-sharing to deliver more arrests and prosecutions on both sides of the Channel; and immediate work on a bilateral returns agreement with France, alongside talks to establish a UK-EU returns agreement.

Mr Johnson said: "If those who reach this country were swiftly returned the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced.

"This would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs.

"I am confident that by taking these steps and building on our existing cooperation we can address illegal migration and prevent more families from experiencing the devastating loss we saw yesterday."

It came after French President Emmanuel Macron stepped up the war of words with the UK over migrant crossings.

 (Sky News)
(Sky News)

Mr Macron is said to have told Mr Johnson that he expected “the British to co-operate fully and to refrain from using a tragic situation for political purposes.”

Speaking during a visit to Croatia, Mr Macron himself said cooperation and not confrontation was the key to resolving the crisis.

“We are going to ask for extra help from the British because all these men and these women don’t want asylum in France,’ said Mr Macron.

“We tell them they’re obviously able to do so, and there are centres in Calais and Dunkirk where they can go, but we’re going to reinforce in fact saving them at sea.”

According to Downing Street, both Mr Johnson and Mr Macron said that they would keep “all options on the table” and “agreed on the urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings”.

They have suggested to investigators that their boat was hit by a passing container ship before collapsing in the Channel.

Home Secretary Priti Patel will meet French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend to discuss the migrant crisis.

Home Office officials and law enforcement officers will also travel to Paris on Friday “to intensify joint co-operation and intelligence-sharing”, according to the Government.

In response to the tragedy, a Border Force official has suggested a joint UK-French patrol at sea would be more effective in tackling the migrant crisis than putting “more boots on the ground” in Calais.

Tony Smith believes such a plan would prevent people from drowning but would need the right “political agreement” from both countries.

His comments come after Home Secretary Priti Patel told MPs offers of joint patrols had been made “once again” to her French counterpart, adding: “I’ve offered to work with France to put officers on the ground and do absolutely whatever is necessary to secure the area so that vulnerable people do not risk their lives by getting into unseaworthy boats.”

Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, she said: “We have to find joint solutions and if it means actually doing more with France and persuading them to take on more support, we will absolutely strain every sinew to do so.”

Meanwhile, claims by Gerald Darmanin, Mr Macron’s Interior Minister, that five alleged smugglers arrested hours after the tragedy were “directly linked” to it appeared false.

Lille prosecutors, who were leading a manslaughter enquiry into the multiple deaths said there was “no provable link’” between the unidentified men and the capsized boat.

Carole Etienne, the state prosecutor in Lille, also confirmed that the dead included 17 men, seven women, and two boys and one girl.

There were two survivors – men of Iraqi and Somali nationality who were on Thursday suffering from severe hypothermia in hospital in Calais.

They have suggested to investigators that their boat was hit by a passing container ship before collapsing in the Channel.

Meanwhile a body that washed up on the beach at Sangatte on Thursday afternoon ‘might be a missing person’ from the capsized boat, said a French police source.

He added: “There is every indication that this corpse has been in the water for 24-hours, but it has yet to be confirmed that he was on the boat which capsized.’

If the body is that of one of the migrants, then the death toll would rise to 28, with two survivors.

However, investigators indicated that figures may change as more information becomes available because nobody knows exactly how many people were on the boat when it sank.

Joint patrols at sea could stop people from drowning, former Border Force boss Tony Smith said. (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)
Joint patrols at sea could stop people from drowning, former Border Force boss Tony Smith said. (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)

None of the victims had passports or identity cards and police were unsure of their nationalities, Interior Minister Mr Darmanin said.

The absence of documents is usual because it makes it harder for the authorities to return the migrants to their countries of origin.

Very few of those on board the boat that deflated were wearing life jackets, and most are thought to have succumbed to hypothermia in the extremely cold water before drowning.

Bernard Barron, president of the SNSM rescue service in Calais, spoke of ‘group murder’ as he described how the ‘floating death trap’ that was meant to contain a maximum of 10 people ‘was completely deflated when we found it’.

Mr Barron said: “Migrants are forced into the boat, and their feet are in water and fuel. These are unimaginable conditions.

“Often only women and children have life jackets, and these boats don’t have navigation lights or radar receivers.”

Charles Devos, also one of the first SNSM rescuers to reach the victims, said: ‘We’ve seen the boats becoming more and more overcrowded.

“The inflatables are only designed for 10 people, but more than 50 have been packed on board, turning them into floating death traps.

Priti Patel said she has made various offers of extra support to France (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)
Priti Patel said she has made various offers of extra support to France (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)

“We always thought that, one day or another, they were going to collide with a container ship or a ferry.”

The rescuers believe the boat left Loon-Plage, near Dunkirk, on Wednesday morning and collided with the container ship at the limit of French territorial waters.

In was the deadliest ever incident of its kind ever, and led to a fisherman sounding the alarm at around 2pm after he saw corpses floating in the sea.

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, also accused the smugglers of being murderers, saying: “The poor migrants spent months and months coming here, and died so close to their dream.”

The tragedy happened as migrants rushed to make the dangerous crossing ahead of winter storms which are expected to sweep in this weekend.

French Interior Minister Mr Darmanin disclosed that 255 migrants reached the UK on Wednesday.

These included about 40 who were allowed into the sea near Boulogne by a French police car with at least two officers inside appearing to do nothing. They landed at around 2.45pm in Dungeness.

Migrants queue for food at a makeshift camp in Calais (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)
Migrants queue for food at a makeshift camp in Calais (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)

And Natacha Bouchart, the Mayor of Calais, said: “I have been warning for weeks and months that this sort of tragedy was bound to happen.”

She said migrants paid between the equivalent of between £2000 and £6000 to make the crossing, fuelling a ‘mafia-style’ criminal operation that was more profitable than drugs.

‘I say that enough is enough,’ Ms Bouchart said, as she accused Britain’s lax benefits system of encouraging immigration.

Ms Bourhart said: ‘The British government has imposed immigration control on our territory for the last 20 years. It has never had the courage to control this immigration back home. You have to react, react quickly to make it all stop.’

Some 27,000 migrants have crossed the Channel this year - far eclipsing the roughly 8,000 who came in 2020 and 1,000 who arrived in 2019.

More than 4,000 have made the journey in November so-far, the most ever in a single month, and the surge shows no sign of slowing down.

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