Doctor shocked at sheer number of migrants to save

Dr Alan Cummins

Cormac McQuinn

It's just past midnight in the Mediterranean Sea, less than 50km from the Libyan coast. Three hundred migrants are attempting the desperate and perilous sea-crossing from Africa to Europe.

They're huddled together, crammed on to an old wooden barge that can barely hold them. Sea sick, dehydrated and hungry, there are 48 children on board.

They don't know if their boat will make it through the next few hours, let alone reach Europe, still hundreds of kilometres away. It's the lights of a ship on the horizon that's their first indication that they might be saved.

A short time earlier the Naval Service vessel the LÉ Eithne was alerted to their plight by the Italian Marine Rescue Co-Ordination Centre.

The 69-strong crew under her captain, Cmdr Pearse O'Donnell, had just hours earlier completed their first rescue mission since being deployed in mid-May.

They saved 201 migrants and transferred them to the British HMS Bulwark before resuming patrol.

This mission, in the early hours of May 29, was under the cover of darkness. The crew suited up in their white jumpsuits to protect them against disease.

Some of them are armed, ready for any security threat.

Two rubber inflatable boats (RIBs) launch from the Irish flagship.

One of those on board was the LÉ Eithne's doctor, lead medic Alan Cummins (pictured inset).

The 35-year-old from Bishopstown, Cork has 14 years experience with the Navy, but he's never been on a mission like this.

Flashlights on the RIBs lit up the migrant boat as they approached. LM Cummins admits now the sight of the sheer numbers on board shocked him.

"Obviously when you're seeing the women and children in a distressed state it's a bit nerve-wracking.

"We just try to calm the whole situation down when you get there because we have to transfer the life jackets. Once you calm the situation, you've told them what's happening then obviously the women and children came first," he said.

It took four hours to transfer all of the migrants to safety on the deck of the LÉ Eithne where Alan and his team of three other medics set up a triage.

But there was to be no rest with the ship dispatched to rescue a hundred more migrants at about 9am.

But those early missions were a massive success thanks to the professionalism of a crew that would go on to rescue almost 3,400 people.

The ship left port last night and Alan - proud of that the ship has achieved - is looking forward to being back home with his girlfriend Claire Fitzgerald.