‘So many dead next to us’: French fisherman recalls Channel horror

Emergency vehicles, with blue lights flashing at Calais harbour after a boat carrying migrants from France to UK sank, killing dozens
French emergency crews at Calais working on the rescue operation. Photo: Francois Lo Presti / AFP
The fisherman who alerted rescuers to the catastrophe in the English Channel on Wednesday has told how he is haunted by the images of bodies floating on the sea.

“Seeing so many dead like that next to us, it was really like a horror movie,” Karl Maquinghen told journalists, after he had disembarked at the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer from the trawler where he works as second in command.

Wednesday’s tragedy in the Channel cost the lives of 27 people. The 17 men, seven women and three children drowned when their inflatable boat lost air and took on water off Calais.

Maquinghen, who has 21 years experience at sea, spoke of his shock and how he now wants only “to hug his children”.

He was the first to spot a body floating in the water from the bridge of the Saint-Jacques II fishing vessel, before realising there were “about 15 dead people, children”.

“We could not see those who didn’t wear life jackets” except for one, dressed in black with a plaid shirt, who floated “not even a metre” from the boat, he said.

 ‘Afraid to haul up nets’

Maquinghen immediately alerted the Cross Gris-Nez, the regional centre which monitors the Channel and coordinates migrant rescues.

“The coast guard was not far away… They came straight away,” he said. “If we had arrived five minutes earlier, we might have been able to save them.”

He said he has been unable to sleep since the trauma. “As soon as you close your eyes, you see the bodies again… We were even afraid to haul up the nets for fear that there would be someone else inside there.”

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Those who try to reach England on frail boats have been part of his daily life for months. He said he often spots boats attempting the crossing, “every day, every half hour, it happens”.

Since the start of the year until November 20th, some 31,500 people have left the French coast and attempted to reach British shores in small boats.

“The Cross told us that as long as they didn’t ask for assistance and the engine was still running, we couldn’t take them on. So we don’t take them on, we listen to the Cross,” he says.

‘Not long to die’

Maquinghen said he expects to witness more tragedy at sea unless the authorities take action.

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“I think it’s the first but it won’t be the last time… It will happen every day, especially at this time” with winter approaching, he said. “In my opinion, it doesn’t take long for them to die” with the sea temperature at 10-12 degrees Celsius.

Whereas in previous years attempted crossings decreased with the onset of cold weather, this year they continue unabated, with a new record set on November 11th when 1,185 people managed to land on the English coast.

Maquinghen said he feels helpless rather than angry. “Who do you want me to be angry with? Nothing can be done. Or else, open the tunnel” under the Channel which migrants once used to reach England before security was tightened.

Despite the trauma, Maquinghen said he will return to sea in the coming days. “It’s our job. We have to go back on board. We have to feed our families.” 

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