x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Almost 250 feared dead in ferry disaster

The search continues for the passengers and crew still missing after a ferry capsized off Indonesia's Sulawesi island.

Around 250 people missing after a ferry capsized in heavy seas off Indonesia's Sulawesi island are probably dead, officials conceded today as bad weather hampered the grim search for survivors. Transport Minister Jusman Syafii Djamal said there was little hope any of the missing passengers and crew would be found alive in heavy seas more than 24 hours after the 700-ton ferry sank off western Sulawesi.

"It seems that due to the weather conditions the chance is little, but we still hope," he said. He said 22 survivors had been rescued, including the captain and 17 passengers, but there was no sign of almost 250 other passengers and crew who were on board the Teratai Prima when it listed and sank late Saturday night. "We have intensified the search this morning. Eight patrol boats from provincial search and rescue teams are already in the area and the navy as well as the air force are also involved in today's search," the minister said.

Indonesians generally don't swim and survivors said most passengers were asleep when the ship suddenly lurched to one side and flipped over as it was bashed by waves of up to four meters. The ferry, operated by a private company, was about 50km off Majene, western Sulawesi, when authorities lost contact with it around 10pm on Saturday. It was sailing from Pare-Pare in South Sulawesi to Samarinda in East Kalimantan.

Survivor Yulianus Mangande, 29, said he was awoken by a loud noise and had little time to react before the ferry overturned around 3:30am local time. "I felt that the ferry was listing to the left, then suddenly it turned upside down. I had to swim in the dark in heavy seas until the morning," he said, adding that he was found by fishermen around eight hours later. Rudi Alvian, 17, said he survived by clinging to a bunch of bananas.

"I was below deck. A bunch of bananas belonging to other passengers helped me float until I found a lifeboat," he said. "We were travelling in bad weather from the time we started to sail," he said. Navy spokesman Rear Admiral Iskandar Sitompul said high seas were continuing to hamper the search for survivors. "Two warships and one Nomad patrol aircraft from the navy are off West Sulawesi scouring for survivors. A team of 40 marines with two rubber boats are also involved in the search this morning," he said.

Sulawesi and Borneo islands have been lashed by storms, heavy rains and high winds for days. The tropical wet season has caused flash flooding across much of the country. Ferry transport is crucial in Indonesia, a massive archipelago of some 17,000 islands and 234 million people. The government has repeatedly vowed to improve safety standards but sinkings are common. In December 2006, more than 500 people were killed when a ferry sank in a storm off the coast of Java.

* AFP