NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga - An overnight ferry packed with sleeping passengers flipped in heavy seas near the Pacific island nation of Tonga, leaving more than 30 people missing and feared dead, officials said Thursday.
Rescuers who plucked more than 50 survivors from the water were hopeful of finding more clinging to wreckage strewn over a wide area, but positive signs were fading after almost a full day's searching.
Tongan officials confirmed only one death, a New Zealand man who was not further identified.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, hosting a meeting of South Pacific leaders, indicated the toll was expected to rise much higher.
"There has been considerable loss of life," Rudd said in comments wrapping up the meeting in Cairns, northern Australia. "Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those that have been affected by this great tragedy."
Many of those unaccounted for were women and children who may have been trapped below decks when the Princess Ashika overturned around midnight Wednesday some 55 miles (85 kilometres) northeast of the capital, Nuku'alofa, officials and a witness said.
The exact number of people aboard the ferry and of those missing was not clear.
Tongan Transport Minister Paul Karalus said 86 passengers and crew were on board, raising a figure given earlier by New Zealand officials involved in the search. But Tongan police assistant commander Tupou Niua said 96 people were on a shipping company list.
Karalus said the number of missing late Thursday was 33, but this tally could be off "by one or two" because of difficulties reconciling passenger lists with names survivors had given to authorities.
Survivor Siaosi Lavaka told the Matangi Tonga news Web site that women and children passengers were given cabins for the journey while men were closer to or on the upper decks.
"No women or children made it," Lavaka was quoted telling the Web site after he was returned to shore.
"It appears that those passengers who were inside the vessel in cabin-type accommodation did not actually gain exit; only those who were outside - hence the number of males as opposed to the number of females" rescued, Karalus told New Zealand's Prime News.