Rescuers plucked 219 survivors from waters off Papua New Guinea after a ferry carrying more than 300 people sank overnight, officials said on Thursday.
“As at 4.30pm (5.30am GMT), there are eight merchant vessels on the scene, five of which have recovered survivors,” said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is helping coordinate the rescue.
“There are reported to be 219 survivors on these five vessels.”
Authorities in Papua New Guinea confirmed on Thursday that the ferry had sunk.
“We confirm that the vessel has sunk and passengers are in the waters awaiting rescue,” the PNG National Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Operator Star Ships said it lost contact with the MV Rabaul Queen at about 6am on Thursday (8pm GMT Wednesday) while it was travelling between Kimbe and Lae in the east of the Pacific nation.
“Bad weather, I think [it is] believed to have sunk,” Star Ships spokesperson John Whitney told AFP, adding that there were up to 350 on board.
“[There are] survivors. At the moment rescuers from Australia are at the site. No fatalities have been reported yet.”
Australia’s foreign office said it “responded to a request for assistance by arranging for aircraft to overfly the area, and will respond to other requests”.
“The shipping company advises that they do not believe that there were any foreigners on board, but our High Commission is seeking to confirm this, including whether any dual nationals may have been affected,” a foreign office spokesperson said.
“The government of Papua New Guinea is managing the response to this incident. Local rescue efforts are currently under way.”
PNG’s National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) said the ship had capsised but it was awaiting more details from officials at the site.
“We don’t have any accurate information as yet, a search and rescue team went out early this morning but they haven’t got back to us yet,” a spokesperson said.
Martin Mosi, head of the National Disaster Centre, said two helicopters and a ship had been dispatched to search the area in addition to the two search and rescue vessels sent out by the NMSA. He was awaiting word on casualties.
Mosi said it was “very difficult to say” what the cause may have been.
“Is it weather, is it overloading or is it something to do with the vessel itself? We do not know but that will certainly come to light very soon,” he added.
Star Ships, among PNG’s largest passenger ship operators, runs regular services to the nation’s outlying islands including to New Britain’s Kimbe, a popular dive site that attracts tourists from across the world. — AFP