10 Aug 2009

Royal Commission into ferry disaster

10:02 pm on 10 August 2009

The Tongan Prime Minister says a Royal Commission will be set up to investigate Wednesday's ferry disaster.

Feleti Sevele was speaking to the news media after he addressed the island nation in a special television broadcast, offering sincere condolences over the sinking, which has claimed more than 90 lives.

He also announced half a million Tongan dollars has been set aside for families directly affected by the tragedy.

The ferry sank about 86 kilometres northwest of the capital, Nuku'alofa, en route to the Nomuka Islands group on Wednesday night.

The New Zealand and Australian navies have suspended their search for the vessel until at least Tuesday night because of bad weather. The wreck is thought to be in about 36 metres of water.

Seaworthiness questioned

Dr Sevele was defiant when asked about the Princess Ashika's seaworthiness.

It is being claimed that the ferry was dangerously rusty and had to be pumped out continuously before it even left the wharf.

The owner of the first vessel to reach the scene where the Princess Ashika sank said the ferry had been in a debilitated state and should never have been at sea.

The MV Pulupaki responded to Wednesday's distress call and plucked survivors from life rafts. Tu'i Uata says the ferry had been berthed beside his own ship, and for the entire day before it sailed he saw water being pumped out. He says even without any cargo on board, the ferry was low in the water.

Mr Uata also says he saw a hammer go through the hull during rust repairs when the ferry first arrived in Tonga, after a troubled journey from Fiji.

The previous owner of the Princess Ashika, Patterson Brothers Shipping, says it operated in Fiji for 10 years with no problems. It says the ship was in a good condition when it was sold to the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd in May.

However, it says training for the new crew taking over the ship in Tonga was cut from two months to just two weeks.

Tonga's Transport Minister, Paul Karalus, has repeatedly denied claims the Princess Ashika was not seaworthy.

Memorial march

In New Zealand, a march is being organised for 23 August to remember those who are missing.

Tongan activist Alani Taione says the memorial march is intended to bring the Tongan community together to remember those who have been affected by the tragedy.

Mr Taione hopes the march will also cause the Tongan government to take responsibility for the sinking. He says the King and government don't care about its people, and the Prime Minister, Dr Feleti Sevele, and the Minister of Transport should resign.