Feared toll from Tongan ferry disaster rises to 95

10th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Police said the final number of missing could be higher and they were continuing to analyse information about unrecorded people onboard the vessel, whose official manifest showed only 79 passengers and crew.

Nuku'alofa -- The feared death toll from a ferry disaster in Tonga has risen to 95, police said Sunday as devastated locals packed churches across the tiny Pacific island kingdom in a day of mourning.

Police commander Chris Kelley said it was now believed there were 149 people on board the Princess Ashika when it went down on Wednesday. Two bodies and 54 survivors have been found, with 93 people unaccounted for.

Police said the final number of missing could be higher and they were continuing to analyse information about unrecorded people onboard the vessel, whose official manifest showed only 79 passengers and crew.

"I think there is a complete manifest that is held by a crew member on the boat when it sailed, but of course that would have been lost in the sinking," Kelley said.

"What we are faced (with) is that people are telling us is they put people on the boat and they weren't on the manifest that was supplied here."

Navy divers from Australia and New Zealand were to continue Sunday trying to locate the ferry, which was en route from Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa to outlying Ha'afeva when it sank moments after issuing a mayday call.

Survivors said the Princess Ashika went down quickly when cargo appeared to shift and people below decks had no time to escape.

The ferry was initially located in about 35 metres (115 feet) of water but may have slipped further on the uneven seabed to a depth of about 100 metres.

New Zealand navy lieutenant commander Andrew McMillan said the ferry had gone down in a volcanic region with several pinnacles and the depth varied from 30 to 110 metres.

Kelley said he was unable to comment on the cause of the disaster but police had interviewed the ferry master who confirmed survivor reports of how quickly the incident unfolded.

A distress call was sent out at 11:50 pm and only a few minutes later the emergency beacon went off, which happens when a ship is immersed in water.

In a small nation of 100,000 people, a large number of families would know people on board the ferry, Kelley said as mourners paid their last respects in churches across Tonga.

Survivors have described how they saw the ferry hit by a one-metre wave which swept the cargo to one side, causing the vessel to overturn.

"The ferry sunk so quickly that no one was able to do anything, and I think the passengers inside just couldn't make it out in time because the ferry just overturned and sank so quickly, in a minute," survivor Viliami Latu Mohenoa said.

Kelley said police and government support teams were visiting families throughout the kingdom "to try and confirm the exact number and identity of people on board."

Efforts were also under way to identify foreign nationals among the passengers.

"We know that there was one Japanese crew member, with two French and two German passengers missing -- four people who were working in Tonga, and there may be more."

The two bodies recovered were of a British national who had been living in New Zealand and a Tongan woman.

Although questions have been raised about the seaworthiness of the Princess Ashika, Tonga's Prime Minister Feleti Sevele said it had passed safety inspections and was found to be suitable for insurance.

Tongan Transport Minster Paul Karalus said an inquiry into the disaster would be conducted by a marine investigator from New Zealand.

The last ferry disaster in Tonga, a sea-faring nation, was in 1977 when the Tokomea disappeared with 63 people on board.

AFP/Expatica

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