Rescuers have plucked nearly 240 survivors from the sea off Papua New Guinea’s east coast after a ferry sank with as many as 350 people on board, officials said.
A plane from Australia, three helicopters and eight ships were scouring the search area after the MV Rabaul Queen went down around dawn yesterday while travelling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to the coastal city of Lae on the main island, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement.
The ferry sank 50 miles (80km) east of Lae, the South Pacific country’s second-largest city, and 10 miles (16km) from shore, the statement said.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the cause of the accident was unknown.
He said more than 300 people were on board the ship, although the precise number has yet to be confirmed.
Australian Broadcasting Corp quoted police in Kimbe, where the ferry sailed from, as saying most of the passengers were students and trainee teachers.
The Australian authority’s dedicated search and rescue plane, based in the northern city of Cairns, had reached the scene by afternoon and another two Australian aircraft were on their way.
Merchant vessels in the area were also diverted and survivors had been spotted in life rafts.
The authority’s spokeswoman, Carly Lusk, said the crew of the first plane threw several life rafts to survivors in the water. She did not know if the search would continue into the night.
In the hours just after the sinking, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the incident a “major tragedy”.
“Given the likely very high loss of life here, I think when this news comes to the attention of Australians around the country they will be thinking about the people of PNG as they respond to this tragedy,” she added.
The Australian maritime agency initially detected the ferry’s distress beacon and alerted the PNG Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which is overseeing the rescue effort.
Ms Lusk said 238 survivors had been recovered so far.
She said 350 people were believed to be on board.
However, Papua New Guinea’s National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) rescue co-ordinator Captain Nurur Rahman said the true figure was probably lower than that.
“I cannot confirm or deny the 350 missing number. It is hearsay,” he said.
“I have not seen the manifest as yet, but it is likely around 300.”
Mr Rahman said there had been no reports of bodies being found.
Ship operator Star Ships could not be immediately contacted for comment.