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93 people missing in Tongan ferry disaster

NINETY-THREE people were missing and feared dead today after their ferry capsized and sank off Tonga, as divers continued to try and locate the sunken vessel in the deep waters off the South Pacific nation.

Police Chief Inspector Sokopeti To'ia said today that the latest count of those aboard the ill-fated ferry was 149, up from an earlier count of 141. Of those, 54 were rescued and two bodies recovered, leaving 93 missing. The confirmed dead were a British man living in New Zealand and a Polynesian woman.

To'ia said the total number of missing could rise again or decrease as police try to sort out exactly who was aboard the Princess Ashika when it went down at midnight Wednesday while carrying passengers and cargo from the capital, Nuku'alofa, to outlying northern islands.

Navy divers from Australia and New Zealand arrived yesterday to help comb the wreck for bodies, but were unable to locate the vessel in their first attempt, To'ia said. Although water clarity was good, the sea bed where the ferry went down is uneven and up to 330 feet (100 meters) deep in places, making conditions difficult, To'ia said.

Although the 93 missing were presumed dead, officials continued to hold out hope that some survivors could be found.

"We're staying positive that we have good news, but our chances are getting slim as each day passes," To'ia said. "We're not giving up hope."

Five foreigners were among the missing. Four were French and German - the breakdown was not exactly known - and one Japanese, To'ia said. Seven children were unaccounted for.

The identities of the foreigners were not yet confirmed, To'ia said.

The cause of the disaster was not known. Survivors described the ferry rocking violently from side to side and waves breaking the lower deck before it went under, though officials said weather conditions were mild.

One survivor, Viliami Latu Mohenoa, told Matangi Tonga magazine that he saw crew members using buckets to bail out water that had filled the lower deck, but the buckets were too small to keep up with the incoming water. A three-foot (one meter) wave then hit the boat, he said, knocking the cargo to one side of the ferry and causing it to flip over.

Police were still interviewing passengers and trying to determine the exact cause of the disaster today.

State-owned Shipping Corp. of Polynesia said the ferry was licensed to carry 200 passengers plus crew, suggesting it was not overcrowded. And Tongan Transport Minister Paul Karalus said the ferry was recently inspected, and there was "no question about its seaworthiness."

Many of those missing were women and children who had been given cabins below deck and may have been trapped inside when the ferry sank about 55 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of Nuku'alofa, officials say.

Most of the male passengers remained on the upper decks during the journey, and the survivors so far were all men.

Tonga, an archipelago of 169 islands and 120,000 people in the South Pacific about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand, is regularly buffeted by destructive cyclones and lies near an earthquake fault-line.

But few natural disasters have caused many deaths, and the ferry sinking has devastated residents across the nation.


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