How the Pylos tragedy could have been avoided

A Search and Rescue exercise, carried out just a few weeks after the shipwreck that claimed over 600 lives, raises questions about what the Hellenic Coast Guard did – and mainly did not do – on the evening of June 14, 2023.

*First Published on Solomon

Stavros Malichudis

On the morning of October 25, 2023, at 10:00, the European Emergency Service (112) received an SOS call.

An unknown caller reported that the boat he was on with 200 other migrants, which had set off from the Turkish coast, was in danger, somewhere near Italy.

He said the boat had taken on some water, it was still moving, but leaning towards the starboard side. He also reported that there were injured people onboard, that some of the passengers had jumped overboard and were trying to swim ashore. He also said that the captain had refused any kind of help and continued sailing towards Italy.

By tracking the mobile phone call, the authorities see the location of the caller and realize the vessel is located in the area southeast of Zakynthos, i.e. within the Greek Search and Rescue Zone, and the Greek Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) takes over the operation.

The Rescue: ‘vessel in distress’

The JRCC reacted immediately:

  • two patrol boats are sent to the scene, one Greek and one Italian
  • an Italian Coast Guard helicopter located at Andravida airport is ordered to take off
  • a distress signal “MAYDAY RELAY” is broadcast to all ships in the area
  • the Port Authority of Zakynthos is informed to send means of assistance and to activate the local emergency plan for Search and Rescue incidents

At this point, however, a clarification should be made: the above description is not a real incident.

This is a two-day exercise dedicated to Search and Rescue carried out by the Hellenic Coast Guard in collaboration with the Italian Coast Guard and the European Border and Coast Guard Organization (Frontex) — an exercise that the Greek Minister of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy, Christos Stylianides described as “exceptional”.

The Search and Rescue exercise was carried out just a few weeks after the shipwreck that claimed over 600 lives.

The Coast Guard vessel which participated in the exercise, and was the first to arrive on the scene to help rescue the passengers, was the PPLS-920.

It is the only Coast Guard patrol vessel that, on the night of June 14, 2023, was reportedly on the scene when the overcrowded fishing vessel Adriana capsized, killing over 600 passengers.

On the night of the actual incident, however, the vessel PPLS-920 appears to have maintained a completely different position. As reported by Solomon and its investigative partners, on that fateful day, the PPLS-920’s state-of-the-art cameras remained switched off, despite Frontex’s directive that they be fully functional during such operations.

Survivors claim that the Coast Guard vessel attempted to tow their vessel, causing it to capsize.

Could it have been done differently?

The detailed listing of procedures, during the Coast Guard exercise, raises concerns about the actions that were planned but not taken on the day of the shipwreck.

In the case of the Adriana, that morning, the Hellenic Coast Guard had been informed by at least three different sources (Italian Coast Guard, Frontex, and as Solomon revealed, an alert by Alarm Phone) of the difficult situation the passengers were in, and that they were desperately asking for help. But the Coast Guard did not organize a search and rescue operation.

Even after the fishing vessel sank, it reportedly took about thirty minutes before the Coast Guard called only one other vessel, the luxury yacht Mayan Queen, to help. This is confirmed both by Frontex’s internal report on the shipwreck, and by the testimony of the captain of the Mayan Queen, which has been reviewed by Solomon.

According to the deck log of PPLS-920, the fishing vessel capsized at 02:00. The captain of the Mayan Queen said he was informed to rush to the scene half an hour later, at 02:30, and it took the luxury yacht about another 25 minutes to reach the scene and assist in the rescue. According to survivors who spoke to Solomon, only then did the rescue operation by the Coast Guard vessel begin.

At an event about the Pylos shipwreck, survivors described the scene after the capsizing of the fishing vessel. They witnessed people in the water praying loudly, thinking they were going to die, and that voices could be heard—and then they would stop.

One survivor spoke of a young girl in the water calling for help. He said the girl was shouting that she is just a child, that she cannot deal with such a situation.

There was no girl among the survivors. Could she have been saved if the Coast Guard had called for help earlier?

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