Twenty-two school children on their way to start a new term are among those feared to have died on a ferry that sank between the islands in Kiribati last month.
Ten primary school children were among the 88 on board, as well as 13 high school students. One 14-year-old girl was among seven survivors rescued in the central Pacific on the 28th January.
The survivors were rescued by the New Zealand Defence Force. The six adults and a baby had scrambled onto the small wooden dinghy after the ferry sank. The New Zealand Defence Force said the crew of a military Orion plane had used radar to locate the dinghy while searching for survivors.
Officials believe a life raft was launched from the sinking ferry. The raft is designed for 25 people, but more could be on board according to Maritime New Zealand. Officials who rescued the initial seven survivors said they did not see any other survivors in the area.
The MV Butiraoi, a 17.5-metre (57-foot) wooden catamaran, left Nonouti Island bound for South Tarawa on 18 January. The journey of 149 miles was supposed to take two days.
The Nonouti council has gone door to door compiling a list of anyone who had family on the ferry, which was carrying no emergency rescue equipment or locator beacon, and had a recent history of mechanical problems.
Using this method, the council has confirmed that a total of 88 people – 45 male and 43 female – boarded the ferry.
The Kiribati government has been strongly criticised by families awaiting news of loved ones for its alleged disregard for marine safety, and the fact it took officials six days to call on Fiji and New Zealand for help from the air, using radar equipment and specialised marine rescue teams.
Senior Search and Rescue Officer John Ashby said they’d been told the ferry underwent repairs to its propeller shaft just before leaving, which may have contributed to navigation problems.
Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) is supporting RCC Nadi in Fiji, which is leading the search, and the Kiribati authorities.
Neville Blakemore, RCCNZ Watch Leader, said an RNZAF P-3 Orion had been searching, and three further aircrafts, from the RAAF, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the United States Coast Guard (USCG), have joined the search.