Nearly 250 Of 362 Saved From Papua New Guinea Ship

Published February 3, 2012 7:27AM (EST)

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (AP) — A day after rescuing nearly 250 survivors of a ferry sinking, crews searching for more than 110 other people aboard came up empty Friday off Papua New Guinea's east coast. Many of the missing may still be in the vessel, now at the bottom of the sea.

The MV Rabaul Queen sank Thursday in rough seas, and big waves and strong winds continued to make rescue efforts difficult Friday. But Capt. Nurur Rahman, rescue coordinator for Papua New Guinea's National Maritime Safety Authority, said he had not given up hope of finding more survivors.

"I do not presume them to be dead yet," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

There were no reports of any more survivors by late Friday, and no bodies have been found.

Rony Naigu, a National Maritime Safety Authority official, told ABC about 100 people are thought to have been trapped inside when the ship was hit by three large waves and sank.

"The sea was really rough, windy, big waves. The boat tilted once, then twice, then three times and it went over," said Alice Kakamara, who was recovering in a Lea hospital Friday after inhaling toxins during the sinking.

"There was oil everywhere," she said.

Kakamara said she might not have survived had she not been with her 11-year-old nephew, who urged her not to give up. They found a lifeboat, but it too was sinking. She said she put the boy on another boat and later heard from relatives that he is OK.

The ferry's owners, Papua New Guinea-based Rabaul Shipping Company, said there had been 350 passengers and 12 crew aboard the 22-year-old Japanese-built ferry when it went down Thursday morning while traveling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to the coastal city of Lae on the main island. A police official said most of those aboard were students.

"We are stunned and utterly devastated by what has happened," managing director Peter Sharp said in a statement.

The company said the cause of the disaster remained unclear, but National Weather Service chief Sam Maiha told Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier newspaper that shipping agencies had been warned to keep ships moored this week because of strong winds.

By nightfall Thursday, 246 survivors had been rescued by merchant ships battling 16-foot (5-meter) swells and 45 mph (75 kph) winds at the disaster scene 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Lae and 10 miles (16 kilometers) from shore, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

Capt. Rahman said the sea temperature was above 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) — warm enough for people to survive for an extended period.

He said most of those rescued had been wearing life jackets.

He said the 155-foot (47-meter) ferry sank in 3,300-foot (one-kilometer) deep water, making it difficult to determine whether bodies were trapped inside.

The survivors were delivered to Lae, the South Pacific country's second-largest city, by five ships early Friday, said the AMSA, which is assisting Papua New Guinea authorities with the rescue.

"None of them had sustained any real injuries. They were pretty cold and miserable," Lae Chamber of Commerce president Alan McLay told Sky News television.

The search continued at first light Friday with three ships, two airplanes and two helicopters, AMSA said.

An angry crowd threw stones at the Kimbe office of Rabaul Shipping Company on Thursday night, outraged at a lack of information, police said.

"There were a lot of people crying and then they wanted to know the fate of their loved ones, the people actually who were on board," Kimbe Police Inspector Samson Siguyaru told ABC.

"I had to send in the police to rescue (staff and), get them out of the office to a location where it is safe," he added.

Siguyaru said the passengers were mostly students returning to school at Lae.

The company said the ferry's captain had made routine radio contact with another vessel before sinking and gave no indication anything was wrong.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said the cause of the accident was unknown, but acknowledged that safety in the shipping industry was lax.

"We need to bring some safety measures back into this industry," O'Neill told reporters.

Australia's High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Ian Kemish, said bad weather played a part.

"I think it's a fair bet that the very severe weather that's being experienced in some parts of Papua New Guinea played a role, but I can't say much more about the cause of the sinking beyond that at this stage," he told ABC.

By Salon Staff

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