x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tonga: 40 missing after ferry sinks

Most of the people missing after a ferry tragedy in Tonga are believed to be women and children who were sleeping below decks.

One British man was killed and 40 people were feared missing after a ferry capsized in open waters near Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa, officials said today. The Pacific Ashika, en route from Nuku'alofa to outlying Ha'afeva island, rolled and sank just before midnight on Wednesday, officials said. The company operating the vessel said there were an estimated 96 people on board, and Tongan police said 55 passengers and crew had been rescued. The only body recovered nearly a full day after the accident was that of a British man carrying a New Zealand driver's licence, officials said. Most of the people missing are believed to be women and children who were sleeping below decks when the vessel overturned, a survivor said as he came ashore today.

Survivor Siaosi Lavaka told the Matangi Tonga Online that he only saw men reach the lifeboats when the ferry overturned in heavy seas. "No women or children made it," he said when he arrived at Ha'afeva on the rescue ship Pulupaki with 50 other survivors, all of whom were men. A spokesman for the New Zealand rescue centre, which is co-ordinating the search, said several vessels and an aircraft had been sent to the area where the Princess Ashika issued a mayday call about 11pm yesterday.

The vessel is believed to have sunk about 86 kilometres north-east of the capital. "A trail of debris from the sunken vessel, stretching about eight nautical miles, had been sighted in the area and the search vessels were targeting that area," search and rescue officer Mike Roberts said.

It was not immediately known what caused the accident with the 34-year-old vessel, which had arrived from Fiji earlier this year to replace an older ferry. "When it left Fiji it turned back at least twice and they said it was because of engine problems, so there were obviously doubts about its sea worthiness," journalist Mary Lyn Fonua said. The inter-island ferry service is a lifeline for the people in the widespread Tongan islands.

Lavaka, who was travelling with his mother Lavinia, who is still missing, said waves rocked the ferry and he believed this caused the cargo to move to one side and put the boat off balance. "We woke up to the sound of shouting and we jumped off," he said. Seven lifeboats that were flung into the sea were soon filled with male survivors and when the ferry sank he said he believed the women and children were still inside.

The cargo on board included a new ambulance and vehicles for the hospital in Vava'u, a spokesman for the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia said. The Princess Ashika was to be used until 2011 when a new ferry, currently under construction, is due to go into service.

* AFP