Wreck of capsized ferry found in Tonga

Searchers located the wreck Wednesday of a ferry that capsized off Tonga a week earlier and found no immediate signs of the 93 people on board who are still missing and presumed dead.

The Princess Ashika flipped over and sank Aug. 5 in a tragedy that has reverberated throughout the tiny South Pacific kingdom and triggered accusations that the government allowed the ferry to operate despite it being unseaworthy.

Tongan Police Commander Chris Kelley said the hulk was found Wednesday by an unmanned search device in about 360 feet (110 meters) of water near where the ferry foundered about 54 miles (86 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Nuku'alofa.

Navy divers from New Zealand and Australia who are assisting the search are not able to go that deep, meaning a search inside the hull for bodies or clues to the disaster will likely have to wait for additional equipment.

"It is important to realize that nobody on board could still be alive," Kelley told reporters.

Two people, a British man and a Tongan woman, are confirmed dead in the sinking, while 54 other passengers and crew survived. One person from Japan and two each from Germany and France are among the missing.

Kelley said authorites surmised the wreck's position based on sonar readings matching the vessel's size and shape, adding that the hull appears intact in an upright position but noting that divers have not sighted the wreck yet.

He said bad weather had again forced authorities to suspend the operation.

File photo of the MV Princess Ashika ferry in Nuku'alofa.

Search coordinator, New Zealand Navy Lt. Cmdr. Andrew McMillan, said a remotely operated vehicle with a video camera would "read the nameplate to give 100 percent confirmation" on the vessel's identity, probably on Sunday or Monday, when weather conditions are expected to improve.

Recovering bodies was up to the Tongan government because the New Zealand and Australian navy divers can only reach a maximum depth of 195 feet (60 meters), he said.

"There are organizations round the world ... who have the capability to dive to those sorts of depths (360 feet). We don't as a navy, the Australians don't as a navy — so that's something for the Tongan government to consider now," he told New Zealand's National Radio.

"We're very pleased we've been able to find the vessel ... but very frustrated that we can't provide some closure to the Tongan people," Lieut. Cmdr McMillan said.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known. Survivors described the ferry as rocking violently from side to side and waves breaking into the lower deck before it went under, though officials said weather conditions were mild.

The ship's captain, Maka Tuputupu, blamed the sinking on rusted loading ramps that allowed water into the boat, and said the Tongan government should take responsibility because it knew there were problems with the ship.

Tongan Transport Minister Paul Karalus resigned on Tuesday, saying he must do so to allow a full government inquiry. But he rejected claims he was responsible.

He said the vessel was fully seaworthy and certified. It was carrying people and cargo well below levels set by its permits.

But the surveyor in charge of carrying out checks on the ferry, Mosese Fakatoa, said the boat was not seaworthy and that he never had a chance to finish his report on it.

"Even without the survey, I can tell you that the ship was not in good condition," he told New Zealand's TV3 News.

The ferry was missing marks which showed how low in the water a ship could ride, Fakatoa said, and not having them breached international maritime conventions.

"I think they (the government) knew about it, but they did nothing," he told the channel.

Tonga's Prime Minister Feleti Sevele said earlier the seaworthiness of the ferry would be investigated by the commission of inquiry. He added that he had himself seen the ferry's certificate of seaworthiness.

Tonga has set up a disaster relief fund to support bereaved families, with an initial $250,000 (T$500,000) government donation. China's Red Cross Society contributed $30,000 Wednesday.

source AFP

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