31 Jan 2018

Sorrow and anger as Kiribati reels from ferry sinking

1:24 pm on 31 January 2018

The disappearance of a ferry carrying as many as 100 people has devastated the people of Kiribati, a parliamentarian says, but there is also anger as details of a litany of failures begin to emerge.

Some of the seven survivors from the MV Butiraoi shortly after being rescued

The NZ Defence Force found seven survivors from the ferry. Photo: Facebook/ @RadioKiribati

"They're not happy," said the MP, Sir Ieremia Tabai. "It should not have happened."

"Many of those who perished would have been kids on their way to the high school in Tarawa, because the new term has to start next week. It's a real tragedy."

The ferry, the MV Butiraoi, departed on 18 January bound for the main island of Tarawa, a journey that should have taken about two days.

It is not known how many people were on the ferry.

The initial estimate was 50, but in a statement on Monday, the government said it could be as many as 100.

"My guess is that the figure of 100 is not far off," said Sir Ieremia. "And I know that that boat is too small to take that kind of number."

What is known, though, is that somewhere in the vast, remote Pacific, the 17-metre-long wooden catamaran broke apart and sank. The Butiraoi had no form of emergency detection beacon, the government said, and it only had one life raft and two dinghies.

Just before its final voyage, it had undergone repairs for a damaged propellor after it had earlier ran aground.

"It was found to be unseaworthy," said the president, Taneti Maamau, in an address on national radio, where he declared a "national week of prayer."

Taneti Maamau, President of Kiribati, speaks at the meeting with Pacific Island Forum Leaders, held on the sidelines of the seventy-first session of the General Assembly.

Taneti Maamau, President of Kiribati, speaks at the meeting with Pacific Island Forum Leaders, held on the sidelines of the seventy-first session of the General Assembly. Photo: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The Butiraoi was due in Tarawa on Saturday 20 January, but no one appears to have noticed that it didn't arrive. The government said it was not alerted to the fact the ferry was missing until last Friday, six days after it was due.

In a statement, the government said it then alerted rescue authorities in New Zealand, whose search area includes Kiribati.

A New Zealand Air Force Orion left to search the area on Saturday, more than a week after the Butiraoi had first left Nonouti.

On Sunday, after about a week adrift in the searing sunlight on the open ocean with no food or water, the Orion spotted one of the dinghies.

A nearby fishing vessel was diverted to rescue them, while a patrol boat with a medical team makes its way out from Tarawa.

Paul Craven, from the New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre, said the survivors, ranging in age from 14 to 34, had no serious medical problems.

The survivors said the Butiraoi had broken apart not far off Nonouti, but the passengers had time to reach the escape rafts before it sank, Mr Craven said.

However, one of the dinghies capsized, and is presumed to have sunk.

Today, four aircraft -- from New Zealand, Australia and the United States -- are scouring an area of ocean larger than 300,000 square kilometres for the final raft, but the chances continue to grow slimmer.

With each day, the ocean's currents create a much larger search area, Mr Craven said.

There were also concerns about exposure to the equatorial heat, and a lack of food, water and other supplies.

Aid dropped off to survivors found on missing Kiribati ferry.

Aid dropped off to survivors found on missing Kiribati ferry. Photo: NZ Defence Force

Kiribati, a nation of only 114,000 people, has been in a state of shock since news of the disaster spread.

Sir Ieremia, who is the member of parliament for Nonouti, said the incident had devastated the island of 2,000.

"It's a real sad day for those who lost their loved ones," he said in a phone interview. "Two or three people that I personally know and live next to in my village, and they are on that boat that perished. People on Nonouti are affected in a very serious way."

Sir Ieremia said communication with Nonouti was difficult, with only limited phone access.

However, from what he had heard, the island had been overcome with grief, with nearly everyone knowing at least one person who is missing.

However, Sir Ieremia also flashed with anger, saying the tragedy was completely avoidable.

The ferry had no emergency location equipment, limited safety gear, and appears to have been overloaded and unseaworthy.

"Every vessel is meant to be seaworthy and they should have all the necessary stuff on board. It's come to light now that that particular vessel did not have any of those things. [The government] should have ensured that this vessel did not sail in the first place," he said.

"I think we have been very relaxed here, we don't take the rules seriously; the government officials, the cabinet, the master of the boat, and the owner of the boat, and so on. I think we need to change our attitude."

Sir Ieremia, and many other i-Kiribati on social media, have also criticised the government of President Taneti Maamau for its response to the sinking.

Many have questioned how the ship was allowed to sail in the first place, as well as how it took a week to register that it had disappeared.

Since the news of the incident was released at the weekend, only one statement has been issued by the president's office, declaring a state of mourning and promising an investigation.

No update was provided on Tuesday, and Mr Maamau's office is yet to respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Ministry for Transport, whose maritime division is responsible for ferries in the country, is also yet to speak.

An NGO worker on Tarawa, Tana Aata, said many people were growing frustrated with the lack of information.

"It's been how many days now and we've just heard about it. We don't know how the people on the boat are, those who are left behind, those who are found and those who are still out there," she said.

Sir Ieremia, who was also the country's first president, said there had been a failure at nearly every level, and a thorough and independent investigation was needed.

"This is a tragedy that demands an independent commission of inquiry. We need to know why it happened and to be responsible," he said. "It's a major failure."

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