19 Aug 2009

Tongan ferry toll lowered to 72

12:58 pm on 19 August 2009

Tongan police have reduced the number of people unaccounted for on the sunken ferry Princess Ashika to 72.

Police on Tuesday revised down the number of people missing presumed drowned from 93 to 73 after fewer passengers were found to have boarded the ferry.

The lower number was arrived at after detailed checking, confirmation with relatives, establishing correct identities with manifest records and statements from survivors. However, police cannot discount the possibility other unknown people were on board.

Tongan Police Commander Chris Kelley says a video of the wreck made on Tuesday by the New Zealand navy's remote-operating vehicle will be made available in full to the commission of inquiry into the disaster.

Mr Kelly says selected clips will be made available to the public - but not footage identifying human remains.

Decision awaits meeting with navy

The Tongan government will not make any decisions on salvaging the Princess Ashika until it has met representatives of the New Zealand navy on Wednesday.

Crew from the Manawanui, having formally identified the wreck on Tuesday morning, will discuss with Tongan police and government officials what steps can be taken next.

Neither the New Zealand nor Australian navies has the capability to raise the wreck and Prime Minister John Key has already suggested putting money towards a new vessel may be a better option.

Lopeti Senituli, the press secretary for the Tongan Prime Minister's Office, says a decision on what happens next will depend on the information gathered by the navy and whether a salvage operation is feasible.

But one woman who lost relatives in the sinking says the Tongan government should not waste money salvaging the wreck.

Elisapeta Tahahau Ofa, who lost her mother, sister and brother in the sinking, says she would rather see the Tongan government concentrate on making sure such a tragedy never happens again.

She says she does not want money spent on salvaging the vessel when there are families in need as a result of the sinking.

The ferry capsized on 5 August 90 kilometres northwest of the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa. Fifty-four people survived and only two bodies have been recovered.