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Major maritime search and rescue operation in Tonga

Nuku'alofa, Tonga


Briefing Paper 1030hrs Friday 7 August 2009

The Tonga Police are currently coordinating a major maritime search and rescue operation in the Ha’apai Group of islands in Tonga.

The motor vessel Princess Ashika operated by the Shipping Company of Polynesia reported a mayday SOS distress call at approximately 2350hrs on Wednesday 5th August 2009.

The distress call was immediately picked up by Nuku’alofa Coastal Radio.

The voice making the call identified as the Master said “we are going to sink in this position 20…º 24’S 174.56”W.

A few minutes later an emergency beacon (EPERB) was activated and confirmed the location of the vessel at a position between Nomuka and Ha’afeva Islands in the Ha’apai Group.

The vessel is a ferry and was on its routine voyage between Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and return.

As at 0100hrs on Friday 7th August 2009 Tonga Police and the Shipping Company believe that 117 persons were on board when the vessel left Tongatapu on Wednesday evening.

Police have established that the vessel had 32 crew members of which 28 have been confirmed as rescued and 4 are still missing.

85 passengers are believed to have been on board with 25 rescued and 2 dead bodies located leaving 58 unaccounted for.

Of the 25 survivors and 2 dead bodies 12 were listed on the manifest and 15 were not.

The Shipping Company provided police with a revised manifest late on the 6th of August.

We believe a more accurate list was on board with a crew member and lost during the sinking.

Two bodies have been recovered one male European and one female Tongan and inquiries are continuing to establish their identity.

The distress call was picked up immediately and a search and rescue operation was quickly underway initiated by Coastal Radio Nuku’alofa and the Rescue Coordination Centre in Wellington.

Tonga Police, Tonga Defence Services and other agencies were notified and commenced action.

The motor vessel “Pulupaki” was the nearest vessel to the area and responded immediately to the distress call with other vessels including the “Captain Tasman”, the Tonga Defence Vessel VOEA Pangai and the Southern Lilly also responding.

Passengers and crew from the Princess Ashika were being rescued by 0300hrs.

The sea conditions at the time were moderate and there was a 20knot Easterly wind.

The Rescue Coordination Center in Wellington tasked the RNZAF search Orion and this aircraft arrived in the area shortly after dawn and spent the day searching.

Nine life rafts, some containing survivors and others empty were located in a drift pattern away from the area were the vessel sank to the west southwest of the last known position of the vessel.

A considerable amount of passengers items, deck cargo and items from the Princess Ashika were located floating on the surface in the general drift pattern.

The Defence Vessel VOEA Pangai came from the south and the Orion from the area of the sinking in order to maximize the rescue coordination effort. Over 77% of the search pattern area had been completed by the Orion at nightfall on the 6th August 09.

Tonga Police under the command of Police Commander Chris Kelley are coordinating the search and rescue operation from Police Headquarters at Longolongo in Nuku…’alofa.

A forward command base has been established at Pangai Police Station under the command of Chief Inspector Falevai with particular roles in relation to victim support, on site rescue coordination and investigation response.

Yesterday, 06/08/09 survivors were taken to Pangai and Ha’afeva where they have been attended to and supported by Red Cross, Tonga Police and other agencies.

Statements are being taken from all survivors in an effort to confirm identity and obtain information about what happened as well as reconciling manifest records.

A number of the passengers have returned to their homes in Ha’apai, Ha’afeva and Vava’u along with a small number to Tongatapu.

The depth of water at the site is believed to be in excess of 36 meters or 100ft plus and Tonga Defence Services (Navy) confirmed they do not have the capability to operate at those depths.

This morning the search and rescue recommenced at dawn with the two Tonga Defence vessels deployed to the area and boats from Ha’apai.

The New Zealand Orion recommenced searching this morning and we await results.

At this point 62 people are unaccounted for using the revised ships manifest however, there could have been more persons on board who have not been identified.

Information is still being gathered in relation to how the vessel came to sink and it is too early to speculate on the cause.

The passenger’s facilities on the vessel are located in two rooms above the deck line.

Search and rescue operations will continue throughout today and we will assess the situation this evening.

A major focus for police is victim support and assisting those families who may have relatives and friends still unaccounted for.

Two briefings were conducted on 6/8/09 at 1030hrs and 1600hrs for all agencies and persons assisting with the rescue effort along with diplomatic staff and international advisors.

We are still in the search and rescue phase of the operation and remain optimistic that more survivors may be located.

Chris Kelley

Police Commander