More than 100 missing feared trapped in PNG ferry

More than 100 missing feared trapped in PNG ferry
# 04 February 2012 01:22 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. At least 100 missing passengers were feared to have been trapped inside an overloaded ferry when it sank off Papua New Guinea, an official said Friday, as rescuers scoured the seas for more survivors, APA reports quoting AFP.

So far, 246 people have been plucked to safety in a joint rescue operation conducted by PNG and neighbouring Australia after the MV Rabaul Queen sank on Thursday morning, but scores more are unaccounted for.

The passengers were PNG locals, many of them students studying at Lae, the ship’s final destination and home to a large university.

"Updated reports from the five rescue vessels indicate there were approximately 246 survivors recovered Thursday," Australia’s Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said.

"PNG officials are processing the survivors on arrival in Lae."

AMSA, which estimated that the doomed ship went down about nine nautical miles off the coast, said three merchant vessels remained on the scene searching, assisted by two Australian planes and two local helicopters.

But rescue co-ordinator Captain Nurur Rahman told AFP conditions were tough.

"The winds have picked up and the seas are rough, making it very hard to see anything other than white-cap waves," he said, but added that the sea temperature was warm "which makes the possible survival times longer".

Another rescue official, Rony Naigu from PNG’s National Maritime Safety Authority, was quoted by Australian broadcaster ABC as saying about 100 people were thought to have been trapped inside when the ship went down.

A third maritime official told AFP no new survivors were found on Friday.

A passenger, Philip Batari, had updated his Facebook page during the voyage, saying: "Having a rough time at sea on board Rabaul Queen", posting photos showing wild seas.

His last post read: "Bloody experiencing the worse moment of my life."

It is not clear what happened to him.

PNG’s safety authority said that the incident was one of the worst sea accidents involving passengers, adding "there is concern for the 100-plus passengers who are still unaccounted for".

It said it was impossible to say what caused the ship to sink, but identified "prevailing weather conditions, the age of the vessel and its capability of taking voyage in this kind of weather" as possible factors.

PNG-based Rabaul Shipping, the owner of the vessel, said it lost contact with the MV Rabaul Queen while it was travelling between Kimbe and Lae.

In a statement, it said there were 350 passengers and 12 crew onboard the Japanese-built vessel. Rahman said it was licensed to carry 310.

"We are stunned and utterly devastated by what has happened," Rabaul Shipping managing director Peter Sharp said amid reports that the company’s office in Kimbe was pelted with rocks by frustrated relatives of passengers.

ABC said local staff of the company had to be evacuated by police to a secret location as scenes turned rowdy with no news filtering through on what had happened.

The company said it remained unclear why the ship sank.

"It’s understood that the ferry captain had routine radio contact with another vessel not long before sinking," it said.

It said they became aware something was wrong early Thursday when the ferry failed to appear on a satellite tracking system.

PNG authorities said the boat issued a distress signal which was picked up by Australian officials, who then coordinated with PNG’s National Maritime Safety Authority.

Vessels in the area were diverted to the ferry’s last known position.

The ferry had travelled the route on a weekly basis for 11 years without incident and underwent a dry dock service in November, Rabaul Shipping added.

Before plying routes in PNG, it operated on shorter runs in Japan.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has ordered an immediate investigation.

Queen Elizabeth II has sent a message of sympathy to Papua New Guinea, Buckingham Palace said Friday.

Queen Elizabeth, who as head of the Commonwealth is Papua New Guinea’s head of state, sent the message to Governor-General Michael Ogio, her representative in the country.