7 Aug 2009

Tonga ferry disaster death toll unclear as records are lacking

3:12 pm on 7 August 2009

Officials in Tonga are bracing for the number of missing people from Wednesday's ferry disaster to rise further because a complete manifest cannot be found.

Sixty-four people are now listed as missing after the Princess Ashika went down.

Weather conditions are deteriorating in the search area, northwest of Nuku'alofa.

Kim Baker Wilson reports.

"The latest information points to 119 people being onboard the ferry. Two bodies have been found and more than 60 people are unaccounted for, but the Tonga police commander, Chris Kelly, says that could rise: 'I'm not sure if that figure will stop at that either. There were clearly people on board that were not listed on the manifest that we have access to and I suspect the main manifest was probably with a crew member on board the boat and was lost in the course of the incident.' A New Zealand Orion is co-ordinating a search from the sky with three vessels on the water targetting areas with significant amounts of debris. Ross Henderson from the Co-ordination Centre says the weather has worsened since the search began but the water temperature is about 25 degrees: 'that's a good temperatures as far as if people are in the water, there is a better chance of them staying alive but obviously as more time goes on survival rates after that length of time are of concern"

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Navy is deploying divers to Tonga to help with the search for survivors and victims.

An Air Force Hercules is due to take off from Auckland this afternoon to help locate the missing.

An Australian team will also take a portable decompression chamber to assist with the search.

The Australian Defence Minister, John Faulkner, says the recovery of bodies is an unpleasant but necessary job which will allow families to farewell loved ones.

He says a New Zealand Airforce Orion has confirmed the ferry is in relatively shallow water, which should make it possible for the dive team to operate.