12 Aug 2009

NZ Navy believed to have found Tongan ferry wreck

9:52 pm on 12 August 2009

A New Zealand Navy search team in Tonga has found what it believes to be the ferry that sank a week ago, claiming as many as 95 lives.

The Princess Ashika capsized on 5 August about 90km northwest of the capital Nuku'alofa, en route to the Nomuka Islands group in the Pacific Ocean.

Two bodies have been recovered and 93 people are now presumed dead. Tongan police commander Christopher Kelley said on Wednesday afternoon there is now no chance of finding any survivors.

The New Zealand Navy's unmanned explorer searched the area where the ferry's last emergency beacon was located and found a vessel upright on the ocean floor matching the size and shape of the ferry about 11am on Wednesday.

The vessel was located using sonar 11 nautical miles southwest of Nomuka resting 110 metres below the surface.

But the depth means it will be difficult to recover any bodies found inside, as it is well outside the diving range of New Zealand and Australian navy teams that have taken part in the search. Both can only conduct recovery operations to a depth of 60 metres.

Police say they cannot be absolutely certain it is the Princess Ashika until they get visual confirmation, but bad weather means this is unlikely until Monday.

The head of the New Zealand Navy dive team, Lieutenant Commander Andrew McMillan, told Checkpoint it looks like the vessel went down very quickly and believed it is likely to be the ferry.

A remotely operated vehicle with a video camera will be sent down to the vessel to read the name plates when the weather improves.

Lieutenant Commander McMillan believed many of the missing people would still be with the vessel and the fact the bodies may never be recovered would be difficult for grieving Tongans to understand.

He said it would be up to the Tongan government to approach other organsiations around the world that have the capabilities to carry out a recovery.

The government had yet to signal if it intended to bring in deep sea diving and salvage experts from overseas to help with the operation.

Outpouring of grief

Angry and grieving relatives camping at the ferry's owner Shipping Corporation of Polynesia were told of the discovery on Wednesday.

Police said the enormity of the tragedy is being felt by many for the first time and there has been an outpouring of grief.

The Tongan government has set up a $TOP500,000 relief fund at Westpac where contributions can be made. It has already contributed substantially to the Ashika Relief Fund and other contributions are flowing in.

Contributions can be made at Westpac or posted to the Chief Secretary at the Prime Minister's Office in Nuku'alofa.

Transport Minister resigns

On Tuesday Transport Minister Paul Karalus announced he would resign over the sinking of the ferry, saying the interests of the Pacific nation must be taken into account at this difficult time.

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

But anger has been increasing in Tonga as people demanding answers have packed churches across the nation to mourn the loss of their loved ones.

Work is under way to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the matter.

There have been calls for Mr Karalus and others in Cabinet to step down. But Mr Karalus says his decision is not an admission of guilt, but rather a legal requirement.

In a statement on Tuesday, he said it was essential that a complete and full investigation into the tragedy be made as soon as possible, and that it be carried out thoroughly and transparently.