2 Feb 2018

Aerial search for sunken Kiribati ferry passengers suspended

11:04 am on 2 February 2018

The aerial search for survivors of the Kiribati ferry disaster has been called off, with at least 80 people feared dead.

The NZ Defence Force found seven survivors from a ferry with 50 people on board that was reported missing in Kiribati a week ago.

The NZ Defence Force found seven survivors from a ferry with 50 people on board that was reported missing in Kiribati a week ago. Photo: NZ Defence Force

Maritime New Zealand this morning confirmed the directive, which came through overnight from the Rescue Coordinations Centre in Nadi in Fiji.

Aerial support for the search effort had been provided by the United States, Australia and New Zealand and an area of ocean larger than 300,000 square kilometres was searched.

Aircraft involved in the search will now return home.

However, four vessels from Kiribati would continue the marine search. Other vessels in the area have been asked to keep a sharp lookout.

Maritime New Zealand's Vince Cholewa said the search would be focusing on the area around where the MV Butiraoi is believed to have gone down with up to 88 men, women and children on board.

He said they would also be tracking back along the route the catamaran was believed to have taken from its last port of call at Nonouti Island.

So far only seven people have been found by rescuers.

Kevin Banaghan from New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Centre told Nine to Noon the aircraft had exhausted the search area, which was bigger than the size of New Zealand.

He said they were surprised they haven't found any more survivors, or the second dinghy and life raft that were on the ferry.

On the first day of searching, a New Zealand air force Orion located one dinghy with seven survivors on board.

"I can't understand why we haven't found any more. Either that or they're not in the area," Mr Banaghan said.

The search teams in the air had also reported finding the same pieces of debris several days apart.

Mr Banaghan said a Kiribati marine patrol boat had picked up the survivors who were rescued by a fishing boat.

There was no distress beacon on board the ferry and they were not sure what communications systems were on board either, he said.

The editor of Kiribati's local broadcaster, Radio Kiribati, Rikamati Naare, said the families of the passengers who were on the ferry would be heartbroken by the decision to suspend the air search.

"For people who are mostly affected by this tragedy, I'm not really sure how they are going to receive this," he said.

"They are searching for answers from the government."

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