28 Oct 2009

Tonga authorities knew of ferry defects, inquiry told

9:56 pm on 28 October 2009

Marine authorities knew of serious defects in a Tongan ferry the day it sank, an inquiry into the disaster has been told.

Seventy-two passengers died on 5 August after the Princess Ashika sank in the Pacific Ocean.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry is looking at whether any criminal act contributed to the disaster and whether there is evidence of civil responsibility.

Government marine engineer Mosese Fakatou told the inquiry on Wednesday he was hired by an insurance company to inspect the ferry the day of its final sailing and found major holes and rust.

Photographic evidence of the poor condition of the Princess Ashika was shown at the hearing, confirming fears that it was a floating death trap.

Radio Tonga journalist Ronda Moala told Radio New Zealand the pictures revealed a heavily corroded lower deck with holes of between 10cm to 15cm wide.

She says Mr Fakatou told the inquiry he had informed the proper authorities of the ship's defects on 5 August, but they said they already knew.

Mr Fakatou told the inquiry he asked a senior crew member about the defect list and was told it had been given to the marine authority for further action to be taken.

Ms Moala says there was shock and disbelief in the inquiry room when photos of the big holes on the Princess Ashika were shown.

Other photos showed heavily corroded sides and blocked vents that stopped water running off decks.

There was also evidence that heavily corroded areas of the ferry had been freshly painted over.

The revelations confirm widely-held suspicions among Tongans that the ferry, bought from Fiji just six weeks before the tragedy, was not seaworthy.

A final report will be delivered at the end of March next year, but many have doubts that the findings will ever be implemented.