Tue, 25 Feb 2003

Eight die, 15 missing after ferry catches fire, sinks off Medan

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post, Medan, North Sumatra

At least eight people were dead and 15 others, mostly children, are missing and feared drowned after a fire swept through a ferry before it capsized early on Monday in rough seas off Tanjung Balai Asahan, North Sumatra, officials said.

Survivors said the crowded ship carrying more than 80 passengers and seven crew members sank after a fire broke out when its engine overheated and exploded.

At least 64 people, including the 43-year-old captain of the ill-fated KM Mutiara Indah, Effendi Simatupang, and its chief technician, Fendi Purba, survived the tragedy.

They were rescued four hours after the accident, which took place at 1 a.m. while the vessel was traveling north from Tanjung Ledong for a five-hour trip to Tanjung Balai.

Effendi and Fendi are being interrogated by Tanjung Balai Sea Police, and an officer said they would likely be named suspects.

"The ferry's engine overheated and triggered a fire on board," First Brig. Soeroto, a local sea police officer, told The Jakarta Post.

He said Fendi told investigators that the boat's chief technician was asleep when the engine overheated.

"Fire is to blame for the accident, not the weather," the officer added.

Soeroto said, however, that the ship's crew members were negligent and were also responsible for the fire as they did not inspect the engine or fix the problem before the ship departed.

He said the search for the 25 missing passengers, believed to be mostly children, lasted four hours.

"We don't know the fate of those missing. They have most likely drowned, but there is also a possibility that some of them could have been picked up by fishermen," Soeroto added.

Aside from the 80 passengers, the boat was also carrying three motorcycles and 300 sacks of rice, he added.

He said the rescuers found it difficult to locate victims due to poor visibility as the fatal accident took place at night and the ship sank 48 kilometers from Tanjung Balai harbor.

Five of the victims were identified as Anton Gultom, 58, Tumpak Sitohang, 52, Rahimin Sinaga, 43, Bunga Sinaga, 5, and Amir, 24. The other three fatalities, including a 30-year-old woman and two men, have not been identified yet.

The dead and eight seriously injured passengers were taken to Tanjung Balai general hospital.

Diana, one of the survivors, said her two children, aged three months and six years, were among the missing passengers. She said she was unable to help them as she panicked when the fire broke out.

"The fire started so quickly with several explosions coming from the engine, and then the ship started sinking," she told the Post.

Soeroto quoted the boat's captain as saying that he had operated the 122 ton weight ship since 2002, and it was owned by a man named Apeng, who bought it three years ago.

Boat accidents are common across this vast archipelago where much traveling is done by ship. Many accidents involve overloaded ships. Safety regulations are often ignored and poorly enforced with ship owners often claiming they are unable to afford maintenance or repairs.