7 Aug 2009

NZ boosts response to Tongan ferry disaster

10:26 pm on 7 August 2009

New Zealand specialist dive teams have been sent to Tonga to assist in search and recovery efforts after a ferry capsized this week, leaving up to 65 people unaccounted for.

The Princess Ashika was heading from Nuku'alofa to Ha'afeva in the Nomuka Islands group and is believed to have sunk about 86km north-east of the Tongan capital about 11pm on Wednesday.

About 120 people are believed to have been on the ferry when it sank and 65 passengers and crew are believed to be missing. They include at least 21 women and seven children who would have been below deck sleeping when the ferry suddenly capsized.

Two bodies have been recovered and 54 people survived. One of the bodies recovered is that of a British man who was carrying a New Zealand driver's licence. There were no further sightings of survivors or bodies on Friday.

Twenty-six survivors were re-united with friends and family in Nuku'alofa on Friday. Tongan Police Commander Chris Kelly said the survivors were shaken up and hurting from their ordeal. Police have spoken to some to try and get a clearer idea of what occurred.

Mr Kelly, who is coordinating the search for survivors, said there appeared to have been three different versions of the ferry's manifest, creating a lot of problems in identifying who was on board.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said the New Zealand and Australian navy teams have planned a joint response. The Royal New Zealand Navy dive team and a remote search team were expected to arrive in Nuku'alofa on Friday night.

Dr Mapp says at this stage the main focus will be the recovery of bodies. He said it would be a challenging exercise and he knows how much families in New Zealand and Tonga will appreciate the navy's efforts.

Prime Minister John Key said he was very distressed at the tragedy and it is likely New Zealand will send more specialised staff to the search area.

The search, including rescue vessels and a New Zealand Air Force Orion, was suspended on Friday evening.

A spokesperson for New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Centre, John Dixon, told Checkpoint the Orion would head back to Tonga for refuelling and would stay there overnight.

Ferry was seaworthy, says PM

Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele said the cause of the sinking was unknown but there were no concerns over the vessel's seaworthiness, as it had passed safety inspections and was found to be suitable for Lloyd's insurance.

"We were quite satisfied according to the reports we got before we actually paid for the ship," he said.

Dr Sevele said there were rough conditions in the area at the time of the disaster and the accident is devastating for the island state. The King of Tonga had left the country on a planned trip to Scotland before the disaster.

Transport Minister Paul Karalus said checks had been carried out on the ferry in Fiji recently and it had been surveyed by naval architects and engineers from New Zealand.

Mr Karalus told Checkpoint the government has engaged a top marine accident investigator from New Zealand, who will arrive on Saturday.

However, MP Akilisi Pohiva said he had been told the Princess Ashika should not have been sailing because it did not meet safety requirements.

Mr Pohiva said he was given the information on Thursday night by a senior officer within the Marine Department.

Anger at lack of information

Up to 300 people gathered at the shipping company's wharf in Nuku'alofa on Friday. Some sang hymns and cried as they comforted one another, but many were reportedly angry at events.

Executive director of the Tonga's National Centre for Women and Children, Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, told Radio New Zealand there have been unofficial reports about the ferry being unsafe and many people are questioning why the boat sank so quickly.

Ms Guttenbeil-Likiliki said hundreds were at the wharf on Friday waiting for news of family members and she called on the Tongan government to release more information.

"There is a lot of anger around the wharf because there are unanswered questions and people are frustrated ... If the boat wasn't safe why did it go out? Why did the government purchase it?"

Ms Guttenbeil-Likiliki said controversy surrounded the ferry's purchase in July because it was 10 years older than the one it was replacing. She said it took almost a month for it to sail from Fiji to Tonga and people believe that is because it kept breaking down.

One person at the wharf said they had heard reports that the Princess Ashika was not seaworthy and that the captain left the helm before the accident happened.

Elisapeta Tahahau Ofa, from New Zealand, is trying to find out what has happened to her mother, and her youngest brother and sister, who were on the boat.

The Christchurch woman told Nine to Noon on Friday that other family members in Tonga are desperately trying to get information.

Offer to strengthen maritime safety

New Zealand and Australia have also offered to work to strengthen maritime safety in the Pacific region.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said he thinks it is a sign that "there are real issues with the quality of some of the ships that are operating in the Pacific."

Mr Key said he had discussed with Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd the need to look at the overall sea-worthiness of various vessels that operate in the Pacific.

Mr Key said New Zealand is working to address that issue for the Tokelau Islands and it will offer any help that is needed, including leasing a replacement ferry to ease disruption for the Tongan people.

In July, New Zealand assisted in search and rescue efforts after a ferry capzised in Kiribati, killing 15 people.