It was just past dawn in the Mediterranean Sea when a search and rescue team spotted a small vessel in distress, dangerously packed with 500 people and speeding towards the Italian coast.
“Each hour that ticks by, their life is on the line,” said Chris Catrambone, who was helping lead the rescue mission. “If you wait 24 hours, then a quarter of that boat will be dead. If you wait 36 hours, half of that boat will be dead. If you do 48 hours, maybe they're all dead. It’s like a ticking time bomb.”
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Catrambone isn’t a naval commander or a Coast Guard captain. He’s a private citizen, a 33-year-old Louisiana native who made millions in the insurance business, who has forced his way into the middle of the international migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
In the past two years, over 300,000 migrants and refugees have fled war, persecution and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, paying smugglers for a spot on rickety boats bound for Europe, where they hope to seek asylum. So far this year, more than 1,800 migrants have died trying to make the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Catrambone and his wife Regina came up with the idea for their non-profit search and rescue operation, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS, to save these migrants, while the couple was vacationing with their daughter on a yacht off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
“We had excess money. What would we have done with that money? We could've bought another house. We could've bought a private jet ... whatever it is that rich people do,” he said. “But those things for us weren't meaningful. This was more meaningful.”
Last summer, Catrambone swapped the yacht for a large fishing trawler named the Phoenix, assembled an experienced search and rescue team and founded MOAS. In the first 2014 season, he financed the mission with $8 million out of his own pocket.
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Part of what makes the MOAS operation unique are the drones Catrambone and his team launch from the Phoenix with high-powered infrared cameras to scan the vast Mediterranean. They can search up to 300 square miles off the coast of Libya, where the vast majority of these migrants embark on their hazardous journey towards Italy.
Catrambone rejects the criticism that smugglers will send more boats out knowing that the Phoenix and other ships are waiting to rescue migrants.
“What MOAS does is rescue people at sea,” Catrambone said. “If they do come out we want to be there to make sure they don’t die at sea. ... That’s the whole point.”
At sea, every ship is required by international law to assist a vessel in distress, which is why smugglers exploit busy commercial shipping lanes, and families pay thousands of dollars to get on board.
In early June, the Phoenix faced its biggest challenge yet -- four boats of migrants, with one of the boats taking on water, and more than 2,000 lives in peril. It would be the largest number of people they had ever attempted to rescue.
Once the Phoenix reached the first migrant boat, they deployed a rescue team in motorized dinghies. With too many to bring on board, the sick and wounded are loaded on first. The Phoenix bridge called for back-up and over several hours, a small fleet of five international warships converged on the area.
It took over six hours to rescue the 2,000 migrants, split up onto the six ships bound for Italy. On the Phoenix, a medical staff from Doctors Without Borders, who partnered with MOAS, provided medical attention.
“This is a pretty overwhelming situation for everybody,” said Mary Joe, a nurse on the Phoenix. “We’ve never seen this much, ever, at one time.”
All of the migrants on board the Phoenix were from Eritrea, the East African country ruled by an oppressive dictator accused of widespread human rights abuses. Many were traveling with children, and some families were separated.
Mohammed Mahmoud, a 32-year-old computer technician, was among those rescued. He said he sold two homes to smugglers to pay for the passage of 17 family members, which he said cost him more than $40,000.
“I don’t know Europe, I’ve never been in Europe, but I know one thing. There is fairness. These people are fair,” he said.
But as the family was put into boats, Mahmoud said he was separated from his wife and three of his five children. He anxiously scanned the horizon to see if the other boats had been rescued and wondered where they might be taken. His plan was for the family to go to Switzerland after arriving in Italy to start a new life together, but with part of his family missing, Mahmoud he was wasn’t sure what to do next.
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