Tonga Ferry Captain Says He Was Pressured to Sail

The captain of the Tongan ferry that sank leaving 93 missing and presumed dead said Monday he was pressured into sailing the vessel even though authorities knew the ship had problems.

Tonga's Prime Minister Feleti Sevele and Transport Minister Paul
Karalus have consistently stated that the vessel was fully
seaworthy, was fully certificated for the service and met all
international maritime standards.

No survivors have been found since an initial rescue of 54
people and the recovery of two bodies after the Princess Ashika
sank last Wednesday. The assumed death toll makes the tragedy one
of the small country's worst in decades.

The cause of the disaster was not known. Survivors described the
ferry rocking violently from side to side and waves breaking into
the lower deck before it went under, though officials said weather
conditions were mild.

Ferry captain Maka Tuputupu blamed the sinking on rusted loading
ramps that allowed water into the boat, and said the Tongan
government should take responsibility because it knew there were
problems with the ship.

"The government knows everything about the boat; they know
because they surveyed the boat," he told New Zealand's TV3 News on
Monday.

Tuputupu said waves were only three feet high (one meter) when
the ferry sank.

Tu'i Uata, the owner of the first vessel to reach the accident
scene, said the Princess Ashika had been berthed beside his own
ship and even without any cargo on board, the ferry was low in the
water. He told New Zealand's National Radio that water had been
pumped out of the ferry for the whole day before it sailed and it
should never have been at sea.

Uata also told the network he saw a hammer go through the hull
during rust repairs when the ferry first arrived in Tonga, after a
troubled journey from Fiji.

Sevele announced Monday that a Royal Commission will be set up
to investigate the disaster and a special session of Parliament
will be held Tuesday.

He addressed the island nation in a special television
broadcast, offering condolences to those affected by the sinking
and announcing a fund set aside for families directly affected by
the tragedy.

Later, he rejected Captain Tuputupu's claims that there were
major problems with the ferry.

""Look, if I was a captain worth my salt and if I knew that
the vessel wasn't seaworthy I would not sail it. If he says that
but now he sings a different tune, then he shouldn't he shouldn't
have sailed it," Sevele told reporters.

"At the end of the day on a vessel, it is the captain who makes
the final decision," he said when asked if the ship's operator,
Shipping Corp. of Polynesia, made the final call about putting to
sea.

Searchers suspended the underwater hunt for the sunken ferry on
Monday because rough weather made it too dangerous for divers.

Of 149 people believed to be onboard the ferry when it capsized,
54 were rescued within hours and two bodies were recovered, leaving
93 others unaccounted for, Tongan police Chief Inspector Sokopeti
To'ia told The Associated Press. The numbers have varied because of
inconsistencies between passenger lists and the accounts of
survivors.

The confirmed dead were a British man living in New Zealand and
a Polynesian woman. One Japanese citizen, and two each from Germany
and France were among the missing, police said.

Navy divers from Australia and New Zealand began looking for the
wreck on Saturday using an unmanned explorer to search an area from
where an emergency distress call was broadcast from the ferry,
about 55 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of the capital,
Nuku'alofa.

So far nothing has been found, New Zealand navy Lt. Cmdr. Andrew
McMillan said.

"With the topography, with the uncertainty of where the vessel
has gone down, we have to face the realization that we might not
even be able to find it," McMillan said.

Tongan police commander Chris Kelley said Monday he is loathe to
call off the search for survivors.

Tonga, an archipelago of 169 islands and 120,000 people in the
South Pacific about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New
Zealand, is regularly buffeted by destructive cyclones and lies
near an earthquake fault-line. But few natural disasters have
caused many deaths.


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