Two bodies have been recovered and 46 people remain missing after a ferry sank last night in waters off Tonga.
The ferry Princess Ashika sank in waters north of the main island of Tongatapu last night.
Taliofa Kototeaua from the ship operators, the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, told Stuff.co.nz that one of the rescue ships had recovered a body and taken it ashore.
Another was on a container ship.
She said they did not know the identity but had heard reports that one of the dead was a European.
She said there were six foreigners on the ship, including Japanese, German and French nationals.
The Matangi Tonga website says no women and children have yet been rescued from the ferry that sank off the coast of Tonga overnight.
It quoted Siaosi Lavaka, who was rescued from the Princess Ashika, saying that all the seven lifeboats that got away were filled with men.
“No women or children made it,” he told Matangi Tonga Online at around midday today.
He said he believed the women and children were all stuck inside the ferry when it went down as they were sleeping when the ferry got into difficulties.
He said the sea was rough and the waves went into the lower deck of the ferry where the crew were.
The ferry rocked and he believed this caused the cargo to move to one side. The ferry then began to overturn and some passengers jumped off.
“We woke up to the sound of shouting and we jumped off.”
The website also reports survivors saying that at least one body of a European male has been recovered and that a surviving crew member believes that two Europeans and one Japanese volunteer are among the missing passengers.
Meanwhile, a police source told Stuff.co.nz a short time ago that bodies had been seen and that there were now believed to have been more than 100 people on the ferry when it sank.
New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Centre launched a major search operation after the ferry sank 86km northeast of Nuku’alofa late last night.
The ferry Princess Ashika was heading from Nuku’alofa to Ha’afeva, in the Nomuka Islands group, when it issued a mayday call just before 11pm.
New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) sent a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion, which arrived at first light.
By midday, the Orion had covered nearly half of the 207sq km search area, pinpointing the sinking about 86km northeast of Nuku’alofa.
The crew reported good search conditions and a trail of debris from the sunken vessel stretching about 15km.
The first boats to reach the scene pulled 42 people from liferafts – 17 passengers and 25 crew, including the captain.
Another 11 were subsequently found safe and well this morning.
Survivors are being taken by boat to Ha’feva, where RCCNZ is working with Tongan authorities to arrange onshore assistance.
Three boats, including the Tongan Navy vessel Pangai, were still helping with the search, with a fourth vessel due to join them early this afternoon.
A balmy water temperature of 25degC would aid the survival chances of those still in the water, said Maritime New Zealand spokesman Neville Blackmore.
A two to three-metre swell is forecast to ease during the day.
Wellington’s Tongan methodist church spokesman Tevita Finau said he was working to find which New Zealand-based families had been affected and the Tongan church community in Wellington was getting together on Sunday to discuss what they could do to help.
“We are feeling the great loss that has happened and we are aware that there has been a history of unreliable services in the islands,” he said.
He added that the community would like the governments of New Zealand and Australia to help them look into shipping services in Tonga, including reviewing the training of crews and safety practices on board.
It was not yet known what caused the sudden sinking of the ferry which was carrying 10 tonnes of cargo, some of which was believed to be timber.
The Princess Ashika, built in Japan in 1970, had only been plying Tongan waters for a few weeks and was just a stop-gap measure ahead of a new ferry coming into service.
Tonga’s previous worst ferry disaster was in December 1977 when the boat Tokomea with 63 people onboard disappeared while travelling from Vava’u to Niuatoputapu with 63 people. All that was ever found was a life jacket and an empty deep freeze unit, despite extensive searches.
Last month a RNZAF C130 Hercules searched for survivors from a capsized large canoe in Kiribati. Eighteen people died.
Last year the RNZAF searched for the 14 crew of the Ta Ching 21, a Taiwanese fishing boat operating in Kiribati waters.
The burnt out boat was discovered but nothing was ever found of the missing crew.