Monday, January 12, 2009

Storm sinks Indonesian ferry, 250 feared dead

PAREPARE, Indonesia – Huge waves and driving rain hindered rescuers Monday as they searched for about 250 people missing and feared dead after a ferry packed with passengers and cargo capsized in a cyclone off Indonesia's Sulawesi island.

Many passengers were sleeping when the 700-ton Teratai Prima was struck by tropical cyclone Charlotte before dawn Sunday while traveling from the western port of Parepare to Samarinda on the Indonesian half of Borneo island, officials and witnesses said. It sank about 30 miles (50 kilometers) off the coast of western Sulawesi.

"People were screaming, 'Help, help!,' " said survivor Sampara Daeng Gassing, 35, who clung to a tire for two hours in the pounding storm but lost his 9-year-old son and father-in-law in the disaster.

"I lost hold of my son and my father-in-law when a big wave hit me," Gassing said, weeping.

Gassing, who arrived with other survivors in the port of Parepare on Monday, said the ferry had been slammed by 13-foot-high (4-meter-high) waves and that he awoke about 10 minutes before it went down.

The captain — who also survived — was being investigated for allegedly ignoring warnings from the Indonesian weather agency that conditions on the crossing were too dangerous, Transport Minister Jusman Syafi'i Djamal said.

At least 21 people — 18 passengers and three crew members — were rescued from the sea by fishermen before the military launched a search operation at daybreak Monday, Djamal told reporters in Jakarta.

The rest of the people aboard were missing and feared dead, Djamal said.

About 250 passengers and 17 crew were believed aboard the ship originally, Djamal said.

However, passengers lists for such ferries in Indonesia are typically inaccurate, with tickets frequently sold on board without being properly tallied.

He said about 150 people jumped from the ship before it sank, and that their fate was unknown.

Three warships, an airplane and a helicopter searched waters off Sulawesi's west coast, but were hampered by driving rain, strong winds and waves of up to 13 feet (4 meters), said Col. Jaka Santosa, who was heading the rescue operation.

The ferry, carrying about 18 tons of cargo, radioed that it was "hit by a storm" before it went down, said Nurwahida, a port official. He goes by one name, as is common in Indonesia.

Boats are a major form of transportation in Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and a population of 235 million. Poor enforcement of safety regulations and overcrowding causes accidents that claim hundreds of lives each year.

In December 2006, a crowded Indonesian ferry broke apart and sank in the Java Sea during a violent storm, killing more than 400 people.

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