A FERRY which sank in stormy seas in Papua New Guinea, claiming as many as 161 lives, was overcrowded, unsafe and unseaworthy, according to a damning report released by the government.
The MV Rabaul Queen went down in rough weather on February 2 after it was hit by three large waves which capsized the vessel, flinging some of those on board into the sea and trapping others below deck.
The report by the PNG Commission of Inquiry was unable to determine how many people were on board because there was no manifest, but said it was carrying at least 392, and possibly as many as 411 people, despite a maximum capacity of 310.
The commission said on Wednesday the Rabaul Queen was unsafe for the overnight voyage from Kimbe to Lae because, among other things, it did not meet appropriate standards for the 4- to 6-metre waves and gale force winds.
The commission said it considered the ship was unseaworthy and should never have departed Kimbe because it was not manned by a competent crew and did not carry lifejackets for children.
“Simply put, the ship should not have been where it was in the conditions that were present on the morning of 2 February 2012,” it said.
It said the operator Rabaul Shipping and its master, Captain Anthony Tsiau, 54, failed to consider the best weather information before the ship sailed or during the voyage, despite a government warning of gale force winds causing very rough seas.
The inquiry said passengers had described conditions on board as “packed” and “overloaded”, saying people were sitting shoulder to shoulder on the decks and could not stretch out their legs.
“At the time of the sinking, the owner of the Rabaul Queen, Captain (Peter) Sharp, had been compromising the safety of passengers and crew on all his ships for a number of years,” Deputy Prime Minister Leo Dion reportedly told parliament.
“Ships were regularly overloaded, they sailed in unsuitable weather conditions and the fleet was poorly maintained,” Dion said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The inquiry found that after a night at sea, a large wave hit the Rabaul Queen at 6.15am and before it could fully right itself, a second smashed into the ship.
As water began to flood in, a third wave hit the exposed hull and the 21-year-old Japanese-built passenger ferry capsized off the coast of PNG’s second largest city, Lae. It sank so quickly the master did not broadcast a mayday signal.
When rescue ships began to arrive at the scene some three hours later, they pulled 246 survivors from the water. Four bodies were also recovered.
Radio New Zealand
A Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of a ferry in Papua New Guinea has found it was not seaworthy, unsafe and should never have departed on its final voyage.
The commission’s report, obtained by Radio New Zealand International, says between 142 and 161 people died when the Rabaul Queen sank between the island of New Britain and the mainland city of Lae on 2 February this year.
It cannot give an exact number of passengers, because it did not have a clear manifest.
The report says weather and sea conditions at the time of the capsize were gale force and the ship should not have been where it was in the conditions that were present.
The commission found the ship’s owner, Captain Peter Sharp, demonstrated that he had little or no respect for people, including those in authority.
It says this “gross disrespect” was reflected in the “appalling and inhumane conditions” in which he was prepared to let passengers on the Rabaul Queento travel and may explain in part why he was prepared to compromise the safety of passengers on board his ships.
The report also found a number of failures by the Maritime Safety Authority, including that it allowed itself to be intimidated by Mr Sharp.
STORIES of shipwreck, real and imagined, have a special place in the archive of human misery. The notion of being lost at sea, frail souls at the mercy of the elements, taps into our most deep-set fears. Witness the barrage of remembrances of the Titanic, a century on, and the media frenzy around the grounding of European cruise ship the Costa Concordia on the Italian coast in January this year.
Three weeks after the Costa Concordia came to grief, with the loss of 32 lives, it was still making international headlines, overshadowing news that a heavily loaded island ferry vanished in wild seas off the Papua New Guinea coast somewhere around dawn on February 2.
For a while it seemed the story of the MV Rabaul Queen was destined, like the ferry, to sink almost without trace, obscured by the bluster of the continuing maelstrom of Papua New Guinea’s political crisis and by early reports that now appear to have grossly underestimated the loss of life.
Almost three months on, the truth of the tragedy – together with disturbing questions about the conditions on board the ship, its safety systems and those of PNG’s maritime protocols more broadly – is surfacing in the testimony of witnesses summonsed to hearing rooms in Port Moresby and Lae.
Over the past two weeks, more than a dozen survivors have quietly provided raw firsthand insights into what is shaping up as one of the nation’s most devastating recent tragedies.
George Turme, a 20-year-old university student, was the first to testify to the inquiry before Commissioner Warwick Andrew, the Australian judge heading the investigation at the request of the PNG government.
Turme swears he was in the company of more than 500 other passengers on that wild, doomed overnight voyage from the island of New Britain to the mainland port of Lae – crammed shoulder to shoulder, packed onto the heaving decks so tight that sleeping, even sitting, was impossible for most.
Turme spent most of the voyage squashed into a toilet area with other men, who assembled around the decks trying to give more protected space in the interior to women and children who spilled across the floors (there were only 50 seats on the whole vessel). It was an act of gallantry that would backfire horribly when the ship capsized.
According to the ship survey certificate presented to the inquiry, the Rabaul Queen could carry a maximum number of unberthed passengers of 295, and up to 15 crew – a total of 310.
If Turme’s estimate that there were more than 500 people on board – and it is one shared by several witnesses in sworn testimony to the inquiry into the disaster, but which outstrips passenger lists drawn from official manifests by about 50 – then well over 250 souls were lost when the Rabaul Queen sank in up to 3000 metres of water.
The true toll may never be known, not least because the lack of records for the infants carried onto the ship by their mothers, and who could not save themselves or be saved.
Turme tells of the desperate, dark hour before the ship sank, as it listed heavily to the left – several witnesses were worried that the Queen seemed to be out of balance right from the time she departed Kimbe wharf.
Around dawn someone – maybe a crew member, though it was impossible to tell as they did not wear uniforms – called on him and about 20 other men to go to the starboard side and try to balance the ship as it negotiated its way through the notoriously treacherous Viliaz Strait, which separates New Britain from the mainland. They tried to lean out over the right side of the ship as the big waves came. ”We look out for the strong wind. So when the waves hit the ship we all bend to the right side and try to balance it,” Turme told Commissioner Andrew.
Once, twice, when really big waves came in, they succeeded in keeping it upright but then ”another strong wave come, came and hit the ship”. It struck the back of the vessel on the starboard side and the Queen began to roll over to the left. Turme and the men with him all leapt into the water as she capsized.
A strong swimmer, Turme kept himself afloat in the dark, oil-slicked seas, swimming desperately away for a few minutes before turning back to see a couple of black life rafts, and climbing aboard one.
”When the vessel went down people were crying and shouting for help, so we tried to rescue some of them, mothers and children. Some of the children were already floating on top of the sea … they were already dead.”
In less than 10 minutes the Rabaul Queen sank under the waves. Turme and another 17 survivors – all adult men, no women or children found their way to the raft – were crowded into his lifeboat, riding the waves and the wind through the dawn and into the next afternoon. The lifeboat held no water, food or medical provisions – just a whistle. Turme and a couple of others vomited.
Lucille Pongi, a mother and housewife from Lae, had also made her way into one of the life rafts. She was a Rabaul Queen veteran, having made the voyage at least 10 times before. This was always the busiest time of the year for the ferry – with a new school term about to begin, students, families and teachers were returning to the mainland after spending Christmas visiting wantoks (extended family) in their island homes. Pongi had worried about overcrowding on previous trips, and recalled for the commission that when she had complained to a crew member a few months earlier – asking how many passengers were aboard – she had been told that the ship took 500 passengers. The man had said, ”We normally take more than that”, she said.
On this trip she was travelling with her sister and her niece. They had already endured a sickening night of wild weather travelling from Rabaul, at the eastern tip of New Britain island, down to Kimbe at the western end.
When the exhausted passengers were ordered off in Kimbe for a couple of hours to allow the ship to be cleaned, refuelled and loaded with more passengers and cargo for the last leg of the journey to Lae, some thought better of continuing the journey. Many persevered though, fearful that they would forfeit their 350 kina ($A160) fares, or have to pay a fine to delay the journey.
Pongi was tempted to join them – indeed her son came to speak to her on the wharf at Kimbe because he was so worried. ”He said ‘Mummy, do you wish to travel?” He had heard there was a cyclone warning in Fiji and wild seas forecast through the PNG islands. ”Look at the waves – you still wish to continue?”
As her sister wanted to push on, Pongi felt compelled to continue. But she was not happy. ‘
‘I tell you it was so crowded, more than what we normally … had on board. There was no space. You just crampled like that when we were sitting down. There’s no place to stretch your leg, to sleep or rest your bag. We had to, you know, just sit up like this all night … there were so many people on board.”
Another passenger, a man, had told her that when he boarded a woman standing with the manifest and counting heads had told him:
”You are the last one, and the total is 500-something.”
Unable to sleep, she became worried when she heard a strange whistling noise sometime in the dark of the early morning. She roused her sister. Something was not right. ”I think the ship has a hole in it.” Her sister said: ”Well, you’ve got funny ideas.”
But, Pongi told the inquiry, ”the ship was unbalanced, leaning toward the left”. Soon after dawn she was screaming at her sister:
”Dianne, don’t sleep, get up, we’re in trouble. Get the crew to give us a life jacket and get us prepared.”
But the life jackets, when she found them, were padlocked in a wire cage – a claim also made by several other witnesses.
Pongi said she she was ”calling out for the people to give us the life jacket because I knew it was about to sink and I was standing there when the waves hit the ship and it just capsized.
”I was under the water for some time and I don’t know … I had my eyes open and it was like a movie I was watching, under the water inside the sinking ship. I was swimming, trying to, you know, find my way out.
”I could see men, women and children, you know, struggling and then some children were … drowned already, they were just floating.”
People struggled to open sliding glass doors. Somehow she escaped.
”I had a prayer, I said thank you Lord. If you wanted me to die, I could have died already in there.”
She grabbed a ”little rainbow bag” that was floating in the water and clung to it for maybe an hour before finding her way into a lifeboat. Her sister and niece also survived.
Determining the true passenger numbers is one of the central preoccupations of the inquiry. Other main areas of investigation emerging in questioning so far relate to the condition of the vessel; its cargo load; access to life vests and life rafts; the competency of the crew; the weather conditions and processes for the issue of weather warnings (it emerged that the National Weather Service had no internet because the responsible department had not paid the bill); and the competency and oversight of the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA).
One passenger witness, architect Roderick Voit, claimed he saw a brown beer bottle thrown from the wheelhouse into the sea soon after the ship left Kimbe wharf.
Insurance and marine survey specialists have given evidence of concerns about the condition of various vessels in the Rabaul Shipping fleet, and one inspection document from 2006 noted that some life rafts were missing – apparently taken for servicing.
Another witness, Roby Naigu, officer in charge of the NMSA, raised concerns about the man at the helm of the Rabaul Queen when she foundered, Captain Anthony Tsiau. Naigu said he believed Tsiau had previously run two ships aground – though his knowledge of this history was challenged by the defence. ”This is the third one, Rabaul Queen, under his command. I believe we would have saved this Rabaul Queen incident if … as an authority we were alerted to this past issue of the same captain who has sunk two other ships already.”
He had also had a confrontation with Tsiau two years earlier after accusing him of inappropriately loading dangerous goods – canisters of oxygen and acetylene – aboard the Rabaul Queen, a matter that had flared into a confrontation and later a legal dispute with the ship’s operator, Rabaul Shipping Ltd.
On the question of passenger overloading, the integrity of manifests has been closely scrutinised. The inquiry has already heard from one passenger who was not listed on any manifest.
The managing director and major shareholder of Rabaul Shipping Ltd, and operator of the Rabaul Queen, Australian-born veteran seaman Captain Peter Sharp has conceded under questioning by counsel assisting, Queensland lawyer Mal Varitimos, that there were up to 376 passengers and crew on board, plus infants.
Sharp has been the focus of intense local anger and personal threats over the tragedy. Three of his other ships were torched in Bougainville shortly after the Rabaul Queen sunk.
Meanwhile investigations by PNG authorities to identify all the people on board, including a public appeal for family and friends to come forward, led to estimates of 453 people on board including children, 230 of whom had been rescued; four bodies located; and 219 listed as missing.
Sharp – who has pledged to fully co-operate with the inquiry – told the inquiry that the Japanese-built, 42-metre vessel had specifications that it could carry 358 adults. This figure appears in some of the insurance and certification documentation tended to the inquiry. He insisted under close questioning that the ship was not overloaded, quoting a provision in the Merchant Shipping Act that a passenger vessel is not overloaded if it does not exceed its load marks as determined on the hull.
”The vessel was operating safely,” Sharp told the commission. He said in loading the vessel his crew would ”basically look at the load line. If they’re not over the load line they consider they are not overloaded.”
More hearings are scheduled to continue at ports along the Rabaul Queen route, and a report is due to be presented to the PNG government by June 30.
An inquiry into a ferry disaster that killed at least 100 people in February has begun in Papua New Guinea, reports Liam Fox.
The Rabaul Queen ferry sank off Lae, on PNG’s north coast.
Estimates of the death toll from different state agencies range from 100 to more than 200.
Counsel assisting the inquiry Mal Veritimos said it will be an important task to establish the exact number of victims and their identities.
Mr Veritimos said Peter Sharpe, the managing director of the ferry’s operator, Rabaul Shipping, has been summoned to testify this afternoon.
But Mr Sharpe’s lawyer told the commission that might not be possible because his client is having difficulty getting a flight from Rabaul to Port Moresby.
Australia Network News
The Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen ferry in Papua New Guinea, is set to begin investigations after Easter. The announcement came after the PNG Government released funds to cover the initial hearings.
The MV Rabaul Queen sunk off the coast of Morobe province in February, killing more than 200 people.
Mal Varitimos, who is acting as counsel assisting the Commission of Inquiry, told Radio Australia the inquiry will report on six terms of reference.
“The first is the facts about the disaster, which occurred on the 2nd of February 2012 when the MV Rabaul Queen capsized and sank,” the Australian lawyer said.
“The second is to consider the cause of the disaster, the third is to inquire and report into evidence leading to any criminal acts contributing to the disaster.
“Fourthly, evidence leading to any civil responsibility.
Fifthly, the reasons why the loss of lives obtained such magnitude and also to present proposals adding measures that would help to prevent the future occurrence of a similar disaster or may assist future search, rescue and recovery of disaster victims.”
Mr Varitimos says the hearings are proposed to start in the capital Port Moresby on April 11, and will take place in different locations.
He says the Commissioner, Justice Warwick Andrew, will deliver the inquiry report by June 30.
The secretary of the Papua New Guinea Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen says hearings will begin after Easter.
The ferry sank off the coast of Morobe province almost two months ago and although disaster officials now put the death toll at 220, estimates of the number who died have ranged from 100 to more than 300.
Plans for an inquiry at an estimated cost of about six million US dollars were announced within days of the sinking and commissioners appointed but Mathew Yuangu says the government had to find the money before work could begin.
“Commissions of Inquiry are not necessarily budgeted items. The government has to source money from other projects that are under the budget to bring up the amount or the cost of the inquiry. So basically it’s not a budgeted item so they had to look for money somewhere.”
Mathew Yuangu says the schedule of hearings will be made public next week.
Bougainville President John Momis has expressed dismay and outrage at the “contemptuous” response to victims of the mv Rabaul Queen disaster by Rabaul Shipping owner Peter Sharp.
“Throughout this tragedy, he (Sharp) has remained mostly silent and when issuing any comments it would appear as if these were contemptuous of the effect of the incident on the families and those involved in the tragedy.
“His attitude, in no small way, has contributed to the unfortunate unfolding of events.”
“He has not displayed the characteristics of a good corporate citizen of Bougainville or Papua New Guinea.”
While careful to separate the burning of Sharp’s three ships in Buka as the work of criminals and condemning it unequivocally, Momis said Sharp’s own attitude in the affair could unwittingly have spurred the unfortunate turn of events.
“The ABG respects the tradition of the rule of law and respects the rights of private ownership.
“We do not share in the belief that one wrong action justifies another, no matter how tragic the circumstances,” Momis said.
Militant elements responsible for the burning of the ships and relatives of those who perished with the Rabaul Queen on Feb 2 went further than the president in their meeting of March 20 at Kokopau.
Along with two ABG House of Representative members, the group resolved to ban all Rabaul Shipping activities in Bougainville.
Among others, the resolutions call for:
- Peter Sharp not to be allowed to operate in Papua New Guinea and Bougainville in future due to the situation experienced;
- Veterans and families of those who lost their lives in MV Rabaul Queen to be allowed to pick up the remaining copra in the ships storage to be resold to recover cost of those providing security of the boats;
- The three hulled out boats to be towed out and sold as scrap metal and the proceeds be retained by families and veterans providing guard; and,
- No threats to be issued to any other shipping companies and that they are welcome and free to operate into Bougainville waters.
The National Maritime Safety Authority has presented the preliminary investigation report into the sinking of the mv Rabaul Queen to Transport and Works Minister Francis Awesa.
Authority chairman Dr Thomas Webster presented the 60-page document to Awesa, who said he would study it and submit it to the Commission of Inquiry (COI).
Webster said the focus of the preliminary investigation was to gather information while it was still fresh from witnesses and passengers and other parties involved to establish what might have happened on Feb 2.
More than 200 lives were lost when the ferry sank.
“The NMSA will continue to co-operate with and assist with the requests of the COI.”
The preliminary investigation team was headed by Maritime College principal Capt Richard Teo and authority manager legal services Iamo Vere and ship inspectors and field officers in from Lae, Kokopo and Madang.
THE father of a crewman who died in the mv Rabaul Queen disaster is baffled by ferry owner Peter Sharp’s silence, reports The National.
Rev Wala Arua, chairman of the group representing families of the missing Rabaul Queen passengers and crew, lost his son Arua Baru who was the ill-fated vessel’s chief engineer.
Arua said Sharp appeared to have boycotted the local media and only talked to the overseas media.
Sharp spoke to Radio New Zealand last week, not to spell out how he would assist the still-grieving families, but to defend the suitability of the mv Rabaul Queen as a long-haul inter-island ferry.
Arua, in an email to The National, thanked the local media for the coverage of the worst maritime disaster in PNG history, and for shedding light on the plight of families of the victims.
He said people affected by the disaster had also lost faith in the National Maritime Safety Authority which had so far failed to shed light on the sinking of the ferry.
“I read the statement by Peter Sharp.
“I don’t think he understands the pain he has caused to Papua New Guineans.
“What is he doing about those crew members who lost their lives?” he said.
“I don’t care how many times Sharp’s boats travelled the route.
“From day one, Peter Sharp and Rabaul Shipping have avoided us. Up to now, even the office of workers’ compensation have not yet received any correspondence from them.
“Their deafening silence and evasion of my son’s family is an indication of the don’t-care attitude of Peter Sharp and his company.”
The retired United church reverend said despite Sharp being a PNG citizen, he did not understand the Melanesian spirit.
“Our family has been forced to pay their own way from Port Moresby to Lae to seek answers about our missing son.
“Even in Lae, Rabaul Shipping office was not open to us, nor was their legal adviser, Solwai Lawyers, able to honour their promise to meet us along with the surviving crew members.
“It appeared the whole world hid from us when we needed information regarding our son, who was an employee of Rabaul Shipping,” he said.
He said it had been a difficult time dealing with his grandchildren and the widow of his missing son.
“At the laying of flowers out at sea off Bongara Point, I had to do the most difficult thing in the world by explaining to my grandson, Oala B Arua Jr, that his beloved engineer-father was buried deep under the ocean beneath us because his boat went down in rough seas,” he said.
“I had to tearfully explain that when we return home, he must not wait for his father because he was not coming back and that we had come to throw flowers because we all loved him, and to acknowledge that his father went to Jesus doing what he knew best and loved doing,” Rev Arua said.
More than 220 people are missing, presumed dead and 237 were rescued when the Rabaul Queen sank off Finschhafen on Feb 2. Only four bodies had been recovered.
More than a month after a ferry disaster claimed more than 100 lives, the Papua New Guinea government has released funds for an inquiry.
Prime minister Peter O’Neill immediately announced a commission of inquiry would investigate after the Rabaul Queen sank in heavy seas off Lae in February.
Australian judge Warwick Andrew was appointed chairman and travelled to PNG at his own expense but left when no funding was forthcoming.
The government now says it has released $1.4 million for the inquiry and another $4 million will be provided shortly.
A commission spokesman says they will soon announce when hearings will be held at the four ports along the ferry’s route.
He says they are also at looking at hiring a submersible robot to examine the wreck on the sea floor.