13 Aug 2009

Missing ferry passengers' names may never be known

9:15 pm on 13 August 2009

Police in Tonga say they have been able to confirm less than half of the 93 people missing after the sinking of the Princess Ashika were on board the ferry.

Police warn they may never be able to identify all of those unaccounted for. Conflicting accounts and evidence mean they are being cautious before releasing a definitive list of the names of those missing.

Police Commander Chris Kelley says just 37 names have been confirmed. He says the process will take some time and may never be 100% accurate.

The New Zealand Navy has shown images captured on Wednesday by sonar of the presumed wreck.

They show what is thought to be the Princess Ashika largely intact and lying upright on the deep ocean floor surrounded by giant boulders.

The navy is now waiting for the arrival at the weekend of HMNZS Manawanui before carrying out a more thorough search of the area.

The team commander says when the ship arrives it will provide a stable platform for a remote operated device to be deployed from.

That device can search deeper than the dive team but continuing bad weather means it is unlikely to be used before Monday.

Salvage attempt costly

An operation to salvage the wreck could cost millions of dollars.

The Tongan government has not yet said whether it will seek help from deep sea specialists in other countries to retrieve the bodies.

The 110-metre depth of the wreck puts it beyond the reach of Australian and New Zealand divers, so foreign specialists will be needed.

Bill Day from marine surveying and recovery company Seaworks told Morning Report it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to recover the bodies.

Mr Day says the total cost of a salvage operation will be several million dollars.

Members of the Tongan community in New Zealand want the ferry to be raised from the sea as part of a thorough investigation into its sinking.

Tongan community leader Sefita Haouli says the government may have to look to outside help for funding and equipment to raise it.

Political activist Alani Taioni says the fact that it will be expensive to raise the Princess Ashika cannot be used as an excuse.

NZ help sought over Commission of Inquiry

Tonga has asked the New Zealand Government for help with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the ferry.

The Attorney-General of Tonga says in a statement on Thursday that the New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission has been asked for assistance.

The statement says Tonga does not have the technical expertise and resources to allow the Royal Commission to conduct an inquiry of this nature and magnitude.

Three commissioners will look into the incident and will be required to report their initial findings by the end of November with a final report by March 2010.

Lack of repairs defended

Tongan Finance Minister Afu'alo Matoto would have been repaired had the government known it was not seaworthy.

There are claims Transport Minister Paul Karalus, who has since resigned, could not pay for repairs to the ferry because that was the responsibility of Mr Matoto.

But Mr Matoto told Morning Report money would have been made available to fix the ferry had problems been relayed following its purchase.

Mr Karalus has denied there were problems with the ferry's seaworthiness or that concerns had been raised with the government before the tragedy.