Desperate battle for life on the Mediterranean

Bel Trew, aboard Dignity 1
Plucked from a sinking dinghy and convulsing on a rescue ship’s hospital stretcher, a heavily pregnant young woman spluttered blood from her scorched lungs. Wide-eyed with panic, Joy, 23, coughed and thrashed as a medical team fought to get intravenous lines into her arms.
Cradling her semi-conscious older sister, Lovett, on the floor beside them, I watched as three Médecins Sans Frontières doctors fought to save Joy’s life. “We’re losing her. Breathing tube,” shouted a nurse as medical equipment crashed to the floor with the roll of the charity’s ship, Dignity 1. The doctor, Pierre, read out the decline in her vital signs.
The sisters, migrants from Nigeria, had each inhaled petrol that had mixed with water in their inflatable boat as it began sinking after setting off from Libya. It burnt not just their skin but their throats and lungs too. “Adrenaline,” another voice in the team cried.
The sisters were among 94 men, women and children badly burnt by boat fuel that Dignity 1’s crew were now frantically trying to help. Everyone on board, from the ship’s cook to the journalists, was pressed to help save lives. My job, I was told, was to keep Lovett upright, breathing and alive.

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They were hauled up screaming as the boat fuel burnt their flesh

The TimesBel Trew, aboard Dignity 1
The eight-year-old boy screamed as the skin on his back peeled off with the fuel-sodden shirt he had been wearing on board the flimsy dinghy.

The petrol, mixed with seawater, had burnt his flesh and he was now shaking uncontrollably.

A Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team rushed to get him and his mother, Blessed, into the hospital on board the rescue ship. Several pregnant women, dragged off the same inflatable and covered in similar chemical burns, collapsed on deck.

The stench of cheap boat fuel covered the stern of MSF’s Dignity 1. All 94 men, women and children on board the dinghy that had left Libya that morning were saturated in it. Their burnt skin, fallen from their limbs, lay in jagged patches on the deck, like patches of dried glue.

Dignity’s medics picked their way through dozens of people, working on the most critical cases. Those who still had strength were screaming.

This was just one of four boats trying to make it to Italy that were found by this MSF patrol in 24 hours, making Monday one of the busiest days experienced by teams patrolling the Mediterranean for migrants. In total 6,055 people were rescued across Libya’s western shoreline by the Italian coastguard, international warships, and aid boats like Dignity 1. Twenty-two corpses were recovered too, but many more bodies will never be found.

Of those rescued 417, including 92 children and 70 women fleeing violence, were hauled on to Dignity 1.

“Please, please I’m burning. The fuel, I’m on fire,” moaned Irene, 22 and pregnant, as she pointed at her inner thighs, where the petrol had burnt holes into her flesh.

“My babies, have you seen my babies?” another woman called Patience cried, as she scrambled through the mêlée of people trying to peel off their fuel-soaked clothes in agony.

The survivors, mostly Nigerians, described how three hours into the perilous journey to Italy and about 20 nautical miles from the coast of western Libya, they had heard a crack as one side of the dinghy snapped, plunging 35 people into the water.

They said two little brothers, aged just four and five, had tumbled off the back of the boat and had been lost in the confusion. In the panic some people had grabbed jerry cans of spare fuel to help them stay afloat. Some emptied them to make them more buoyant, but that had made the water in and around the boat corrosive.

On Dignity 1’s lower deck the men and women who could stand stripped naked and were hosed down. Others were carried semi-conscious into showers, or bathed in buckets to wash the fuel from their skin.

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