Papua New Guinea says 110 missing after ferry sank

More than 110 people were stilly missing after a ferry sank off Papua New Guinea's east coast, and rescuers feared many had been trapped inside.

246 survivors rescued from ship

Three life rafts from the MV Rabaul Queen float above the sunken hull of the ferry in the open waters off Papua New Guinea's east coast on Feb. 2. Rescuers plucked more than 200 survivors from the sea off Papua New Guinea's east coast after the ferry sank with as many as 350 people on board, officials said. (Associated Press/Post Courier)

More than 110 people were missing Friday after a ferry sank off Papua New Guinea's east coast, and rescuers feared many had been trapped inside.

Searchers found only one survivor on Friday, a day after rescuing 246 people from the MV Rabaul Queen, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said.

The ferry sank Thursday morning in rough seas. O'Neill said bad weather forced rescuers to abandon their search early Friday, but it would resume Saturday. He refused to say whether any bodies had been recovered.

Capt. Nurur Rahman, rescue co-ordinator for the National Maritime Safety Authority, said he had not given up hope of finding more survivors.

"I do not presume them to be dead yet," Rahman told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Rony Naigu, a National Maritime Safety Authority official, told ABC that about 100 people are thought to have been trapped inside when the ship was hit by three large waves and sank.

"The sea was really rough, windy, big waves. The boat tilted once, then twice, then three times and it went over," said Alice Kakamara, who was recovering in a hospital Friday after inhaling toxins during the sinking.

"There was oil everywhere," she said.

Cause of sinking unclear

The ferry's owners, Papua New Guinea-based Rabaul Shipping Co., said there had been 350 passengers and 12 crew aboard the 22-year-old Japanese-built ferry when it went down while travelling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to the coastal city of Lae on the main island. A police official said most of those aboard were students.

"We are stunned and utterly devastated by what has happened," managing director Peter Sharp said in a statement.

The company said the cause of the disaster remained unclear, but National Weather Service chief Sam Maiha told Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier newspaper that shipping agencies had been warned to keep ships moored this week because of strong winds.

By nightfall Thursday, 246 survivors had been rescued by merchant ships battling 5-metre swells and 75 kilometre-per-hour winds at the disaster scene, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

Capt. Rahman said the sea temperature was above 20 C — warm enough for people to survive for an extended period. He said most of those rescued had been wearing life jackets.

He said the 47-metre ferry sank in one-kilometre deep water, making it difficult to determine whether bodies were trapped inside.

Shipping industry safety lax: PM

The survivors were delivered to Lae, the South Pacific country's second-largest city, by five ships early Friday, said the AMSA, which is assisting Papua New Guinea authorities with the rescue.

"None of them had sustained any real injuries. They were pretty cold and miserable," Lae Chamber of Commerce President Alan McLay told Sky News television.

An angry crowd threw stones at the Kimbe office of the shipping company on Thursday night, outraged at a lack of information, police said.

"There were a lot of people crying and then they wanted to know the fate of their loved ones, the people actually who were on board," Kimbe Police Inspector Samson Siguyaru told ABC.

The company said the ferry's captain had made routine radio contact with another vessel before the sinking and gave no indication anything was wrong.

O'Neill, the prime minister, said the cause of the accident was unknown, but acknowledged that safety in the shipping industry was lax.

"We need to bring some safety measures back into this industry," O'Neill told reporters.