7 Aug 2009

Death toll from Tongan ferry tragedy may have doubled

10:06 am on 7 August 2009

The number of people who may have died in the Tongan ferry tragedy has nearly doubled - with two confirmed dead, and 62 now unaccounted for.

The Commander of Tonga's police force Chris Kelly says they have now revised the manifest list, and think that 117 people were onboard when the vessel sank.

Mr Kelly says he can't explain why only men have been rescued, but there may have been a shift change happening, which would account for all the crew being on deck.

He says of those missing - 23 are men, four of them crew members, 21 are women, and 7 are children - with the rest being as yet unidentified.

"Tonga's a sea ferry nation so this disaster, and its a terrible disaster really strikes right at the heart and spirit of this country."

Chris Kelly says the focus remains on finding survivors, but as time passes it becomes increasingly unlikely.

Meanwhile, allegations have emerged that the ferry was not sea-worthy.

Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, from the Tongan national centre for women and children, says people are desperate for information.

She says it is common knowledge that the Princess Ashika, which was brought to replace another ferry, was far from sea-worthy.

It was 10 years older than the MV Olovaha and it was purchased from Fiji. It took quite some time to reach Tonga from Fiji and it had several breakdowns along the way and I think it took a span of one month to actually reach Tonga-Tapu, so based on that there already started some controversial debates around the safety of the ferry.

Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki says the vessel was an accident waiting to happen.

But Tonga's prime minister, Feleti Sevele, says there were no concerns over the seaworthiness of the ferry.

He says the cause of the sinking is unknown, but the vessel had passed safety inspections.

They had tested for seaworthiness and also for its suitability to be insured, and as you know Lloyd's Insurance is quite stringent. We were quite satisfied according to the reports we got before we actually paid for the ship.

Mr Sevele says it's unlikely any more survivors will be found, and he understands most of those still missing are understood to be women and children, who were believed to be asleep at the time.

He says he's asked New Zealand and Australia to send navy divers to help recover bodies from the ferry.

We do believe that the missing ones are down with the ship and so it is important that we get some people to see if they can recover them.

Mr Sevele says the cause of the sinking is still unknown, but the boat has been located at a depth of some 35 metres.

Both New Zealand's and Australia's Prime Ministers have offered assistance to Tonga.

The two countries have also offered to work to strengthen maritime safety in the Pacific Region.

The ferry tragedy in Tonga was the second in as many months, with a fatal sinking in Kiribati last month.

After yesterday's Pacific Islands forum leader's retreat, leaders expressed their deep personal sympathies to the Government and people of Tonga.

New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, says New Zealand will offer some financial assistance to Tonga.

I think it's a sign of the fact that there are real issues actually with the quality of some of the ships that are operating in the Pacific. We recognise ourselves that we are trying to address that issue for Tokelau and I understand the foreign minister meet with the Ulu from Tokelau and that issue was top of mind. We are working hard to find a resolution there.