Wed, 05 Mar 2003

Search for victims of ferry tragedy extended

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post, Medan, North Sumatra

North Sumatra Governor Tengku Rizal Nurdin has ordered rescue workers to continue the search for more corpses after last week's sinking of an overloaded ferry off the province as the death toll rose to at least 44 people.

The search was abandoned on Sunday, seven days after the KM Mutiara Indah, packed with 140 passengers, caught fire and sank in rough seas off Tanjung Balai Asahan on Feb. 25.

The ill-fated boat, which was sailing north from Tanjung Ledong on a five-hour trip, capsized two hours before it arrived in Tanjung Balai Asahan.

The governor said the search needed to continue, although it would be conducted by a local rescue team.

"Our consideration to continue the search is merely based on the sense of humanity as many families of the victims believe that some bodies could not be found because they are trapped under the boat's wreckage," he told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

He said the search would be focused on efforts to locate and find the ship wreck.

Due to bad weather, the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) team have failed to find the ferry despite their seven-day mission in waters off North Sumatra and the adjacent province of Riau.

Rescue team coordinator First Lt. Tubagus Budi Wahyudi said the search was terminated not only because it had passed the deadline of Sunday, but due to the bad weather and resulting poor visibility.

"The sea condition with the depth of between 30 and 40 meters and a lot of mud has made it difficult for us to find more bodies," he added.

He said at least 44 bodies were found and 26 others were still missing when the mission was halted on Sunday night.

But families of victims had reported that at least 32 people, including 20 women, were still missing, he said.

Tubagus said he believed that strong winds and currents had swept many of the victims up to 140 kilometers from the scene.

Meanwhile, Asahan Police chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Umar Saptono said his office had named the owner of the ferry, Apeng, as another suspect in the tragedy apart from the ship's captain, Effendi Simatupang, and chief engineer Fendi Purba.

However, Apeng remains at large. "We are continuing to search for him. He and his family left their house in Tanjung Ledong last week," Umar said.

He said Apeng was allegedly responsible for the mishap as he operated the boat which was unworthy for sailing.

Police have also charged the captain and the chief engineer, both currently being detained, with negligence as they failed to examine the engine room before the ship departed, and for allowing the boat to carry passengers well in excess of its maximum load of 60 people.

The vessel caught fire and capsized after its cooling system failed to work properly and overheated. The high temperature caused the fuel tanks of motorcycles, which were kept in the hold near the engine room, to explode.