VIDEO: Dozens Feared Dead After Ship Smashes Into Christmas Island

Officials believe up to fifty people have drowned after a ship carrying asylum seekers crashed into the cliffs at Christmas Island.

The wooden ship, believed to be carrying seventy asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq emerged in the early dawn of morning close to shore. The ships arrival came as a shock to Australian officials who patrol the island for suspected illegal entry vessels. Officials believe the vessel attempted to make it to Flying Fish Cove overnight making it more difficult for navy and customs officials to spot the boat on their regular patrols.

The rough waters smashed the ship against the rocks causing it to break into pieces. Locals heard the screams and came running to help but there was little they could do in the rough waters. Some gathered life jackets and tied them to ropes to toss to survivors.

The Australian Navy and customs agency launched rigid inflatable boats to assist in the rescue operation. Rough seas of up to 16-feet made it difficult for rescue teams to reach the scene, taking 30 to 40 minutes just to reach the boat. By the time rescue arrived the boat had been smashed to pieces. Despite the conditions the Navy and Customs officers pulled 41 survivors from the water and 27 bodies. One survivor was able to swim ashore and was helped by the locals nearby.

Some residents of Christmas Island have been critical of what they believe to be insufficient rescue plans in place by the Navy and Customs officials.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has announced that three investigations into the tragedy will be conducted. The Australian coroner will conduct the main investigation, while a criminal investigation on the people-smugglers, will be conducted by the Australian Federal Police and an operational review of procedural issues will be conducted by Customs and Border Protection.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that the boat went undetected because of extreme weather conditions that limited radar and other surveillance systems.

Photo courtesy of Reuters