66 die in Tonga sea disaster

August 7, 2009 12:00 am

, NUKU’ALOFA, Aug 7 – A total of 66 people including many women and children are now feared dead from a ferry disaster in the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga, rescuers said Friday.

There were 53 survivors, two bodies have been recovered and at least another 64 people were missing, search and rescue co-ordinator John Dickson said after a revised manifest increased the number on board from 79 to 119.

There were six foreigners on board the 34-year-old Princess Ashika, including British, German, French and Japanese nationals.

Tongan police said the lack of accurate records meant the number of missing could be higher.

Tonga’s Prime Minister Feleti Sevele has asked New Zealand and Australia to send navy divers to help recover bodies from the sunken ferry, saying there was little chance of finding more survivors.

"The hopes for the rest are not promising, unfortunately," he told journalists in Australia, where he was attending a meeting of Pacific leaders.

"It’s a very sad day… it’s big for a small place. This is a huge disaster, a huge loss, we’ll try and cope with it as best we can."

The ferry has been found in 35 metres (115 feet) of water, prompting Sevele’s request for divers to help in the recovery of bodies.

Ferries are an essential mode of transport in Tonga, a sprawling island nation, and elsewhere in the Pacific. A ferry sinking last month in Kiribati left 33 people dead.

The Pacific Ashika, en route from the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa to outlying Ha’afeva island, rolled and sank in high waves just before midnight on Wednesday about 86 kilometres (53 miles) northeast of Nuku’alofa.

Tongan police commander Chris Kelley told a press conference here Friday there was difficulty reconciling the numbers on board the Princess Ashika, with 15 of the survivors not even on the passenger list.

"We believe a more accurate manifest was on board and was lost so there could have been more persons on board who have not been identified," he said.

The 64 missing included 21 women and seven children who were sleeping below decks when the ferry sank.

Dickson said a New Zealand Air Force Orion resumed sweeps over the disaster area on Friday morning and was directing rescue vessels on the water.

"There is still a significant amount of debris in the water and we will be targeting those areas," he said.

"Clearly survival rates after this length of time are of concern but we remain hopeful of finding more survivors."

Orion pilot Nathan McMaster said it appeared there was adequate safety equipment on the ferry "and it was certainly a factor in saving as many people as they have".

Australia and New Zealand led international efforts to assist Tonga with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd saying a dive team and medical support would be activated Friday.

"This is a large human tragedy for what is at the end of the day a small community in Tonga," he said at a joint press conference with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key at the Pacific leaders’ summit in Cairns.

Key said although the exact number of victims was not known "it looks as though it may be larger than we originally thought".

Sevele said the cause of the sinking was unknown and although questions have been raised about the vessel’s seaworthiness, he said it had passed safety inspections and was found to be suitable for insurance.

But many Tongans had expressed concerns about the safety of the ageing Princess Ashika, which had been sent from Fiji this year to replace another ferry called the Olovaha that was no longer deemed safe.

The Princess Ashika was to be used until 2011 when a new ferry, currently under construction, is due to go into service.


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