SIMALUNGUN: A sunken Indonesian ferry could be sitting 450 metres (1,475 feet) below the surface of one the world’s deepest lakes, officials said Monday, raising fears that scores of missing may never be retrieved from their watery grave.
The vessel was believed to be operating illegally with no manifest, life jackets or passenger tickets, police said, after questioning the ferry’s captain, and authorities have struggled to pinpoint the exact number onboard when it went down a week ago in bad weather.
Sonar equipment detected an object — measuring 20 metres by five metres — that might be the overloaded boat which capsized and sank a week ago on Lake Toba, a picturesque tourist destination in Sumatra.
“The shape of the silhouette is like that of a ship,” Muhammad Syaugi, head of the national search and rescue agency, told AFP.
However, further analysis would be required to confirm if it was the vessel, he added.
Despite the challenges in retrieving a ferry — and bodies — from the depths, Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said it would be crucial to the investigation.
“If we can retrieve the boat, the KNKT (National Transportation Safety Committee) would be able to check it to see if it was properly designed and whether or not it complied with regulations,” he said.
“So, getting this boat from the seabed is important.”
Hundreds of grief-stricken people have been waiting for days by the shore hoping for news on the fate of missing loved ones.
Lake Toba, which fills the crater of a supervolcano that exploded in a massive eruption tens of thousands of years ago, is one of the world’s deepest lakes, plunging some 500 metres in spots.
Due to its depth, search teams are using remotely operated underwater vehicles to help identify the object.
‘No life jackets’
Just three passengers have been confirmed dead in the accident, with 18 survivors. Official estimates listed 193 others — including children — as missing.
They are presumed dead, with many bodies thought to be trapped inside the ferry.
“We are still trying to figure out the best way to retrieve the boat because we believe victims were trapped inside,” said military chief Hadi Tjahjanto.
The traditional wooden boat could have been carrying five times the number of passengers it was built to hold, along with dozens of motorcycles, officials have said.
National police chief Tito Karnavian said investigators had uncovered a range of violations.
Four suspects have been named, including the captain, as well as three senior officials at Simanindo port, he said.
“We have found a number of violations,” Karnavian said.
“There were no life jackets. There was no manifest.
“These three (officials) were supposed to monitor and check (vessels’) seaworthiness,” he added.
The accident could be one of Indonesia’s deadliest maritime disasters.
Survivors have said the boat began shaking as it struggled to navigate strong winds and high waves about halfway into the 40-minute trip from an island in the middle of the lake to shore.
Traditional vessels like the one in the Lake Toba disaster are often packed beyond capacity and lacking safety equipment.
The disaster came just days after more than a dozen people were killed in an unrelated ferry accident in the Southeast Asian archipelago nation, where many people depend on boats to get around despite its woeful maritime safety record.
Nearly 80 people died in a ferry accident on Lake Toba in 1997.
More than 300 people are estimated to have drowned in 2009 when a ferry sank between Sulawesi and Borneo islands.