Hopes fade for finding more survivors of Tongan ferry disaster; 85 missing presumed dead

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga - The number of people feared dead after their ferry flipped and sank off Tonga rose to 85 Saturday, 21 more than previously thought, police in Tonga said.
Police Chief Inspector Sokopeti To'ia told The Associated Press on Saturday the latest count of those aboard the ferry was 141. Of those, 54 have been rescued and two bodies recovered, leaving 85 missing. The dead were a British man living in New Zealand and a Polynesian woman.
Navy divers from Australia and New Zealand arrived early Saturday to help comb the wreck for bodies. The 85 missing were presumed dead.
Investigators continued to learn more Saturday about how many people were aboard when the Princess Ashika went down at midnight Wednesday while carrying passengers and cargo from the capital, Nuku'alofa, to outlying northern islands.
Five foreigners were among the missing, four were French and German - the breakdown was not exactly known - and one Japanese, To'ia said. Seven children were unaccounted for.
The identities of the foreigners were yet to be confirmed, To'ia said.
The chances of finding any of the missing alive "are not great," Police Commander Chris Kelly said Friday.
The cause of the disaster was not known. Survivors described the ferry rocking violently from side to side and waves breaking the lower deck before it went under, though officials said weather conditions were mild.
State-owned Shipping Corp. of Polynesia said the ferry was licensed to carry 200 passengers plus crew, suggesting it was not overcrowded.
Tongan Transport Minister Paul Karalus said the ferry was recently inspected, and there was "no question about its seaworthiness." Veteran democracy campaigner 'Akilisi Pohiva has claimed the ferry was unsafe and should not have been operating.
Many of those missing were women and children who had been given cabins below deck and may have been trapped inside when the ferry sank about 55 miles (85 kilometres) northeast of Nuku'alofa, officials say.
Most of the male passengers remained on the upper decks during the journey, and the survivors so far were all men.
Two days of searching by sea and air has found no sign of survivors since a few hours after the ferry capsized. Authorities suspended the search at nightfall Friday and were not sure they would resume it.
"We live in hope, and we will be making a decision overnight as to whether the search continues," New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center director John Dickson said Friday on that country's National Radio.
"This is a huge disaster, a huge loss," Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele told reporters in Cairns, Australia, where he was attending a South Pacific leaders' summit.
Tonga, an archipelago of 169 islands and 120,000 people in the South Pacific about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand, is regularly buffeted by destructive cyclones and lies near an earthquake faultline.
But few natural disasters have caused many deaths, and the ferry sinking has hit hard.
Dozens of relatives and their supporters gathered on Friday outside the office of ferry company, hoping for good news, many of them weeping and hugging of each other for support.
"Everyone is absolutely shell-shocked. No one has been untouched by this," Tonga's Chief Justice Tony Ford told New Zealand's Stuff news Web site. "My driver lost his neighbour, his neighbour's wife and their daughter, a woman from the court has lost two of her sisters. Everyone has been affected."

Organizations: The Associated Press, Shipping Corp. of Polynesia, New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center

Geographic location: Tonga, Australia and New Zealand, NUKU'ALOFA Northern islands South Pacific Cairns Hawaii

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