A fisherman has described how efforts to save people after a small boat capsized in the English Channel was like “something out of a Second World War movie”.
Four people have died after the dinghy carrying migrants got into difficulties on a freezing night off the Kent coast, with the Royal Navy, French navy, Coastguard and RNLI lifeboats all involved in a major rescue operation on Wednesday morning.
A French charity said it was sent a voice message in the early hours from migrants in the waterlogged boat begging for help, and that babies could be heard screaming in the background.
A fisherman has described being woken as migrants surrounded his boat “screaming for help”.
The skipper, later named by the BBC as Ray Strachan, told Sky News his crew saved 31 people stranded in the Channel, adding: “It was like something out of a Second World War movie – there were people in the water everywhere, screaming.”
Footage showed a group of people, squashed inside a sinking dinghy which was filling with water, being hauled up over the side of a boat with rope.
He added: “One guy was hanging off my wire. I thought at first it was just him, and once I got my fishing gear up – which took about three minutes – I stopped my boat and ran outside and along the port side there were five of them hanging off the side of my boat.”
Ben Squire, who owns the fishing trawler, described it as a “horrific” incident.
He told ITV News West Country: “We’re talking about human beings and people’s lives, and lives have been lost today, but I’m really glad that we managed to save 31. The heroes are the skipper and the crew of our boat today.
“They got them aboard, there were 31 of them which is a lot of people, obviously soaking wet, freezing cold, panicking, really scared.
“They got them in the hot shower, warmed them up, the crews got their own clothes on them, fed them with their food and the Arcturus then went into Dover alongside and got them off safely.”
Nikolai Posner, communications officer for Utopia 56 which helps migrants in Calais, said a 22-second WhatsApp voice note was left at around 2am UK time.
In the message, a man can be heard saying “help us, help us” and that there was water inside the boat with “families and kids” on board, Posner told the PA news agency.
He said: “It was clearly an emergency, he was calling for help. It was like ‘help us, help us, help us, we need help’ … In the background of the message we can hear babies screaming.”
Prime minister Rishi Sunak expressed his “sorrow” at the “capsizing of a small boat” in the Channel, telling MPs there had been a “tragic loss of human life”.
Dover and Deal MP Natalie Elphicke urged Sunak to “meet urgently” with French president Emmanuel Macron to set up joint patrols in the Channel and on the beaches to prevent boats entering the water and to save lives.
“Urgent action is needed now,” the Tory said.
RNLI lifeboats were launched from Dover at 3.07am, followed by more from Ramsgate and Hastings.
Government sources said 43 people were rescued, with more than 30 of those pulled from the water.
In Dover, a black body bag was brought ashore on a stretcher from the Dover RNLI lifeboat at around 11.15am and taken to forensics tents outside the RNLI headquarters.
There are likely to have been freezing temperatures in the Channel overnight amid a cold snap sweeping across the UK.
The temperature recorded at Dungeness overnight was between 0C and 1C, according to the Met Office.
The tragedy came a day after Sunak unveiled a raft of new measures in a bid to curb Channel crossings as he told MPs: “We have to stop the boats.”
More than 44,000 people have made the dangerous crossing this year, government figures show.