SPECIAL REPORT: In a rare interview, Arne Rinnan, the Norwegian captain of the Tampa, remembers his bitter frustration when the Australian government forbade him from bringing the 400 rescued asylum seekers to the mainland.
The phone rings in Arne Rinnan's home, and the voice that answers it is like a quiet echo from a time long past.
Arne Rinnan's calm, measured responses to the media in the aftermath of the Tampa affair became, in a sense, the wallpaper of the whole saga. And now, the voice is unchanged, only perhaps even a little more resistant to being pulled backinto the limelight than it already was then.
But after several minutes, the Tampa captain allows himself to reflect just a little.
This is what a refugee wrote to him: “Last night, our family prayed for you together, you old sailor from Norway, our rescuer. We remember those fatal hours, when our little wooden boat was shivering in the wind. You are a noble Viking with wisdom and humanity. My youngest son wants to put up a picture of you in his room, and my wife kisses your hands in gratitude".
Arne Rinnan has lived the human dream, basking in the glory of the rescuer revered by the rescued. Nine months after the Norwegian cargo ship he captained, the MV Tampa, plucked 433 asylum seekers from an ailing wooden ferry, he docked in New Zealand on his last voyage.
About 200 of the asylum seekers, blocked from entering Australia, had been accepted as refugees in New Zealand, and they welcomed him with open arms, open adoration. The humbling message from one father was just one of many.
Now, another nine years later, Arne Rinnan is comfortably settled deep into retirement in a quiet town of 25,000 in southern Norway, and a reporter poses the question. All these years later, was there any one thing somebody said to him that, above all else, sticks in his mind?
The answer is immediate ... and deeply unsettling.
“Ja, there was one man from Nauru who sent me a letter that I should have let him die in the Ind ... the Indian Ocean, instead of picking him up. Because, the conditions on Nauru were terrible. And that is a terrible thing to tell people, that you should have just let them drown,” he said.
Despite all the letters, all the messages of praise, as he sits in his home today, that is the message he hears above all others. The tale about the man on Nauru perhaps explains why Arne Rinnan is reluctant to be interviewed a decade after the showdown at sea, why he wants to just leave it all behind.
He has, in fact, agreed to talk only after an assurance that he can stay away from the politics. But then he talks, and the personal becomes the political.
Long before the whole thing landed some of the asylum seekers on Nauru for three years, Arne Rinnan says, he and his crew were relishing the rescue as a moment of a lifetime.
“This was a highlight in my life. I'd never been doing something like this before, and you feel very satisfied when you are able to help so many people. And there were small children there, pregnant women, hurt men”.
“So we were very proud of what we… that we were able to help them,” he said with hesitation.
A lifelong seaman, Arne Rinnan was on his second-to-last voyage when his ship took the call from the Australian rescue centre that the crippled wooden boat had been spotted.
When the Tampa arrived on the scene, he says, the crew found people in visibly bad shape. The only thing to do, he says, was to help in any way they could.
“I feel I was doing the right thing, because it's a rule at sea to help and assist people in distress, and that's what we were doing. And we were doing the best we could to get them safely ashore after we had picked them up from the sea,” he told SBS.
He says the rescue, pulled off amid large swells, was not straightforward.
"I feel the crew was doing a terribly good job, because they were, really, handling 438 people from the boat to the gangway, and the ship was moving two or three metres”.
Originally, Arne Rinnan says, the people on the stranded ferry became very relaxed once they were safely on board the Tampa and apparently headed for Christmas Island. But then the orders came to take them to Merak, and he clearly remembers the agitated five-man delegation coming onto the ship's bridge as the change of plan became known.
“I felt very frustrated, and surprised, that, you know, the Australian government, that they really could turn those 400 people around and just send them out at sea again.
“And the ship was not sea-safe either when there were so many people on board. And the voyage from Christmas Island to Indonesia would have taken about 12 hours. The ship was not in sea-safe condition”.
When he saw the agitation the change had caused, Arne Rinnan changed plans again. That was when he headed for Christmas Island against the Australian government's orders, and when the showdown set in. In his mind, Christmas Island was the only choice at that point.
“I also promised them that they would see the lights from Christmas Island in three or four hours. So, if you just turn around and then take them to Indonesia, they will not see the light, and they will all get frustrated. And they were also threatening us a little bit with 'going crazy,' whatever they meant with that”.
“I felt very sorry for the people who they left to live on Nauru. Because, I got a lot of letters from ... messages from them that that was a very bad place. But the people in New Zealand, I felt, had been given a second chance. I met them on my last voyage at sea before I retired, and they seemed very happy there”.
For just a moment, he relishes that last homecoming of sorts, an 18-hour stop in Auckland on his final voyage where many of the asylum seekers met privately with the crew on board.
“That meant a lot to us, because we still had 12 crew members from the voyage where we rescued these people, and they meant a lot to all of us”.
One of the 35 teenage boys who had left Afghanistan without their parents called him “the greatest man, for us”.
Another remarked: “We've seen many heroes in the movies, but he's our real hero”.
But 10 years down the road, Arne Rinnan hears another voice of the rescued: “You should have let me die in the Indian Ocean”.