Melbourne: Over 100 people, mainly students,
are feared killed after a ship with over 350 on board sank off
the coast of Papua New Guinea on Thursday, even as over 200
passengers were saved by Australian rescuers from choppy seas.
About 350 Papua New Guineans were on board the Rabaul
Queen when it went down in the Solomon Sea about 8.30am
Melbourne time, according to reports.
The ship was headed for the PNG north-coast town of Lae
from the West New Britain town of Kimbe.
"The vessel was said to be carrying 350 people, 80 per
cent of them students about to start college or university in
Lae," The Australian newspaper said.
Reports said Australian rescuers saved more than 200
Papua New Guineans from drowning after the ferry sank, but by
nightfall fears remained for more than 100 were still missing.
"About 200 people had been rescued - most of them from
the water," Rescue co-ordinator Captain Nurur Rahman said,
adding that several passengers were still unaccounted for.
Captain Rahman said four merchant ships were diverted to
the scene by Australian authorities to help with the rescue.
The rescuers are scouring the area for further survivors,
he said, adding the priority at the moment is to save lives.
He said it was too early to say why the ferry went down.
Operator Star Ships said it lost contact with the MV
Rabaul Queen at about 6:00am (2000 GMT Wednesday) while it was
travelling between Kimbe and Lae in the east of the Pacific
nation, blaming bad weather for the disaster.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the
ferry, with about 350 people on board, went down 16 kilometres
off the coast of Finschhafen, which is about 80 kilometres
from its final destination of Lae.
Ferry operator Rabaul Shipping was quoted by the ABC news
as saying it lost contact with the vessel early this morning.
Australian maritime authority put a call out for ships in
the area to head to Finschhafen.
"We`ve sent three planes at this stage - one of them is
already on scene, and that`s one of AMSA`s contracted
dedicated search and rescue Dornier aircraft from Cairns,"
AMSA spokeswoman Carly Lusk said.
Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said
that the death toll could be very high.
"There has been a boat go down in Papua New Guinea with,
as we understand it, 350 people on board," Gillard said.
"This is obviously a major tragedy... There is likely to
be a very high death toll," she said.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O`Neill has ordered
a probe into the tragedy.