Sunday, November 22, 2009

Survivor describes chaos as Indonesian ferry sinks

A ferry which sank in Indonesian waters on the weekend killing 29 people was overloaded and its life boats were leaking, a survivor has claimed.

High-school teacher Amir Azli, 56, described scenes of pandemonium on board the Dumai Express as water started to pour through cracks in its hull and it rocked violently in the heavy swells.

"The skies were clear and the seas were calm when we set sail but the weather turned bad on the way. There was a heavy downpour and huge waves and the ferry was rocking from side to side so vigorously," Mr Azli said.

"Children were wailing and women, men, old people all panicked. Many people were crying and vomiting. Some people were so seasick they fainted... even the men. We were all so scared and stressed."

The passenger confirmed the captain's claims that the vessel had sailed into an unexpected storm shortly after leaving Batam Island bound for Sumatra on Sunday, but he blamed overcrowding for many of the deaths.

"The ferry was overloaded. My estimate is there were more than 350 people on the boat," he said as he recovered in Tanjung Balai on Karimun Island near Singapore.
The ferry, with a capacity of 273 passengers and crew, sank in less than 30 minutes after it started taking in water off the coast of Karimun in the Malacca Strait, according to the captain, Johan Napitupulu.

The captain praised his crew and said the accident was the result of a freak storm, not overcrowding.

Maritime officials however said there were "indications" of overcrowding and the accident was under investigation.

"I saw at least 50 people without tickets sitting on the top deck of the ferry. If they had tickets, they should have been in the ferry and not sitting outside," said Mr Azli, who made it onto one of four lifeboats.

Many of the passengers were on their way to visit families for a Muslim holiday, and were carrying "huge suitcases", he said.

"It wasn't just the bad weather. The ferry was overloaded so of course I'm angry that the ferry operator broke the safety rules and people had to die because of that," Azli said.

"The safety equipment on the ferry also wasn't up to standard. The life boat I was on leaked and water was getting in as we waited for help. All of us had to soak the water with our clothes and wring the water out as we waited."

As the search for survivors from the Dumai Express resumed off Karimun Island earlier today, the ferry’s captain Johan Napitupulu said he had no warning he was sailing into a massive storm when he left Batam.

"The weather was fine when we left Batam port. There was no sign of rain and we also didn't get any warning from anybody saying the weather could turn bad at sea," Captain Napitupulu said.

"About half an hour later the weather suddenly turned really, really bad. The waves were higher than two metres (six feet), the winds and currents were strong."

He denied the vessel was overloaded or unfit to sail, and said the crew had done all it could to arrange life boats and jackets for the terrified passengers.

The official toll stood at 29 dead and 250 rescued as officials tried to piece together what caused the latest in a litany of ferry disasters in Indonesia.

Karimun-based Navy Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin said there was “an indication of overcapacity". Fishing boats, police patrols and navy warships set out in lashing rain at first light earlier today to search for those believed to be still missing.

"We resumed the search at 6:00am (2300 GMT Sunday). The chances of finding survivors are still high because they were wearing life jackets."

Heavy seas are preventing navy divers from finding the wreck to determine if anyone was trapped below decks, he said.

"At the moment the currents are very strong, it's raining and the waves are 2.5m high, so the risks are very high if we (try to search the wreck)," Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin said.