Dave Lassam - Rescuing refugees at sea
Department of Veterans' Affairs
Anything you do at sea at night is dangerous, it really is, but the ship was ready for this sort of thing. Even though we are set for war, you have to pull people out of the sea and so forth. We had, HMAS Torrens was with us as well I believe, one of our warships, and they helped rescue some of the people. But the main bulk came and they were alongside the Melbourne and we got them up scramble nets and so forth.
Now this was at about dusk, as I say, so it was getting dark, it was dangerous and we got them up. And that particular night, I was night duty because we had enough medics on board the Melbourne, as I said we had 11, we could afford to have one bloke on duty at night so if something went wrong, I could, without waking up the rest of everybody, I could at least do something, get the doctor up or whatever.
And of course, when the rescue started, I was quickly woken up to join in in the thing because it was taking all hands-on deck. And I still remember coming and going, "Oh geez. Oh here we go". The youngest was six months old and the oldest, I think she was 87. I think she was the grandmother of the six-month-old or something like that.
And, of course, where do you put 99 people, even on a big ship like we you can't put them on the flight deck because we still needed to fly so we put them on the fo'c'sle (forecastle) which is the front end but below the flight deck. We made it protected for them and we had the beds and everything and everybody on the ship pulled together, it was just amazing how the stories got all the gear and the cooks made extra tucker for them.
Literally everybody wanted to help, they want to be a part of this. There was just this upwelling of the humanity type thing. And it's something you don't often see but we do and because when these things happen, everybody wants to help. But there's a team thing that has to come in and there's a system we have to do to make sure that all the bits happen, notwithstanding the fact that people want to help, we have to perhaps get them back a bit, say. "No, listen, get this done, so that we can do the whole job."
Of course, as you're saying, medics tend to be forefront when these things happen and the guys that were on board that time were just great, they just wanted to be there and knew their stuff. But we were dealing with old people and young kids, which is what we don't normally deal with. But we sorted them out and most of them were okay. I think we had three or four in the sickbay, the sickbay was fairly large, the grandmother was one and the little fella was there, was another one.
We had a couple of others who have been dehydrated and so we had to put drips in them and so forth. And we then had to maintain, just like a normal hospital, we have patients and we're all sitting up on the fo'c'sle which is in the weather a little bit, but we managed to cover it off so there wasn't too much blowing on and we had to feed him and look after them.
There's still a security thing to look after them, you just can't leave them there, we had to have security guys and if they had to go to the heads or toilet, you had to be escorted and all that sort of stuff. And look, I think they were just so pleased to be not sitting out in a little boat because they would have they would have all died, if we hadn't found them that night.
I have no doubt they would have sunk because they did advise us that during the phase where they're coming, two or three other large ships had seen them and just ignored them and sailed on and we were the only ones that stopped. To be part of it, and it still is today, a really big morale booster, I think, it's just one of those things that's just, you know, happens once in a lifetime.