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Tongans hold funeral service at sea for ferry dead

WAILING mourners from Tonga dropped a marble plaque inscribed with 74 victims' names into the ocean above the wreck of a ferry that sank this month in a disaster that shook the tiny South Pacific nation.

Relatives and government officials on a small flotilla of boats took part in the funeral ceremony yesterday for those believed trapped inside the Princess Ashika when it went down Aug. 5.

Two bodies were recovered and 72 other people were believed drowned. Divers were unable to reach the wreck to recover remaining bodies because the water is too deep.

A Tongan Navy honor guard stood to attention as the coffin-shaped marble slab was released into the sea some 54 miles (86 kilometers) northeast of Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, at midday yesterday.

As the plaque slipped into the deep water, an outburst of wailing and crying lifted from the funeral party.

The ceremony replaced the normal Tongan graveyard burial and suggested that the government will not try to recover bodies of remaining victims, although it has not formally announced that it has ended those efforts.

The tragedy triggered accusations in the tiny, impoverished South Pacific kingdom that the government allowed the ferry to operate despite it being unseaworthy. The government has rejected the claims, and an investigation is under way.

Searches at sea and underwater around the wreck ended last week.

The ferry went down with 128 people aboard; 54 were rescued and two bodies were found. The rest are believed to be trapped in the wreck, 360 feet (110 meters) down on the ocean floor - too deep for divers to reach without special equipment only available overseas.

Tongan police commander Chris Kelley said police exhausted all likelihood of finding survivors, and that the families of the 72 persons unaccounted for "can complete closure for their loved ones."

Families had camped outside offices of the ferry operator, Shipping Corp. of Polynesia, for 17 days hoping for news, but ended their vigil Saturday.

Yesterday, three vessels, a ferry and two Tongan Navy patrol boats, carried mourners to the ocean site from the capital. Joining relatives of the victims were Tonga's Princess Regent, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, government officials and foreign diplomats.

They took turns lowering or throwing wreaths into the sea.


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