, PORT MORESBY, Feb 2 – Twenty-eight people were rescued but hundreds remained unaccounted for on Thursday after a ferry sank off Papua New Guinea, with neighbouring Australia warning of a “very high loss of life”.
Operator Star Ships said it lost contact with the MV Rabaul Queen at about 6am on Thursday (2000 GMT Wednesday) while it was travelling between Kimbe and Lae in the east of the Pacific nation, blaming “bad weather” for the disaster.
“At the moment rescuers from Australia are at the site. No fatalities have been reported yet,” Star Ships spokesman John Whitney told AFP, adding that there were up to 350 people on board.
The PNG National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) said it was first alerted by a distress signal early on Thursday and confirmed that “the vessel has sunk and passengers are in the waters awaiting rescue”.
Some 28 survivors had been plucked to safety by early afternoon but there were still hundreds unaccounted for, according to the NMSA’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).
“Four foreign-registered vessels are presently at the scene assisting with the rescue efforts, along with the dispatch of two helicopters from Lae,” the MRCC said.
“At present there are no confirmed statistics or details involving the passenger numbers, however reports have revealed in excess of 300 passengers were aboard the vessel,” it added.
“Merchant vessels in the area that have been diverted to assist in the rescue efforts.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard described it as a “major tragedy” that had likely claimed a large number of lives.
“Given the likely very high loss of life here, I think when this news comes to the attention of Australians around the country they will be thinking about the people of PNG,” Gillard told reporters.
Australia arranged for nearby ships to assist in the rescue and dispatched aircraft to overfly the area, with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd saying Canberra stood ready “to offer all necessary assistance”.
“These aircraft will assist with dropping rescue equipment, including life rafts. Local rescue efforts are also currently under way,” Rudd said.
PNG MRCC said it was working closely with Australian officials to coordinate the rescue effort.
Australia’s foreign office said it had been advised by Star Ships that “they do not believe that there were any foreigners on board” but its local diplomatic post was working to confirm that.
“The government of Papua New Guinea is managing the response to this incident,” a foreign office spokeswoman said.
Martin Mosi, director of the PNG National Disaster Centre, said he was awaiting word on casualties and it was “very difficult to say” what the cause may have been.
“Is it weather, is it overloading or is it something to do with the vessel itself? We do not know but that will certainly come to light very soon,” he added.
Star Ships, among PNG’s largest passenger ship operators, runs regular services to the nation’s outlying islands including to New Britain’s Kimbe, a popular dive site that attracts tourists from across the world.