Police divers have pulled two bodies from the sunken wreckage of a boat that was packed with asylum seekers trying to reach Australia when it was smashed to pieces on rocks at a remote island, taking the death toll from the disaster to 30.
Home affairs minister Brendan O’Connor said the bodies of a man and a boy aged about 11 were found near the hulk of the wooden boat after seas calmed enough for divers to enter the water.
With possibly scores of people still missing from the crash on Wednesday, officials said there was little hope of finding anyone else alive.
“The sad reality is we are now looking at more a recovery of bodies operation than a search for survivors,” immigration minister Chris Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
The boat, carrying up to 100 asylum seekers of Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish origin, smashed into the jagged, limestone cliffs of Christmas Island, plunging the passengers into massive waves that battered them against the rocks.
Twelve men, nine women and seven children – including four infants – were among the dead, the Customs and Border Protection Service said.
Prime minister Julia Gillard warned the death toll was likely to rise, though officials have not been able to establish how many people were aboard the boat.
More than two dozen survivors are being cared for at a local hospital, and authorities transported five people with the worst injuries to mainland Australia for treatment.
A victim identification team arrived on Thursday, and trauma counsellors, Red Cross workers and interpreters were on hand to help the 25 men, eight women and nine children who survived.
The tragedy highlighted the dangers hundreds of refugees face every year as they try to sail from Indonesia to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats with few provisions and no safety gear. Most come from poor, war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan and stop in Indonesia before setting off to start new lives in Australia.