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By Jack Metta

NAMATANAI, Papua New Guinea (February 2, 2000 – The National)---Seven missing passengers of the ill-fated coastal vessel MV Feni, which capsized in rough seas off Namatanai in New Ireland province on Sunday, are feared trapped in the sunken ship.

Search and rescue operations coordinator Patrick Chee said yesterday that searchers had so far failed to located the missing people and he feared that they were trapped in the ship.

Meanwhile, anxious parents and relatives braved choppy seas, rain and wind to converge on Rasese village near Namatanai in search of news of their loved ones.

Mr. Chee said yesterday evening that a couple of dinghies had arrived at the Rasese care center from the outlying Anir group of islands to make inquires about the safety of people, mostly students, who were among more than 200 passengers aboard the MV Feni which capsized about three kilometers (1.8 miles) off Namatanai.

The death toll in the accident yesterday climbed to four when a seriously injured 14-year-old Grade 7 student succumbed to her injuries at the Nonga Base Hospital in Rabaul.

The student had been evacuated to Nonga Base along with a 10-year-old boy who was yesterday recovering from his injuries.

Three people are in critical condition at the Kavieng hospital.

The dead include a female student who drowned at the site of the accident and an elderly man and a child.

Mr. Chee said air and sea searches were being conducted along the course of the tide towards Taubar Island on the east coast of Kavieng.

"The vessel has been located 530 meters (1,749 feet) off the shoreline at a depth of 57.6 meters (190 feet) by an environment diving crew from the Lihir Mining Company," he said.

"Efforts to salvage anything from the vessel are being hampered by strong winds, rain and choppy seas. The environment crew can only go down as far as 45 meters (148.5 feet)."

"Air and sea searches have located debris from the vessel, but nothing else up to 6:00 p.m. yesterday.

"If there are bodies trapped in the sunken vessel, we need to retrieve them within 48 hours, and 24 of those have gone."

The seven missing people include four elderly men including the village recorder on Tanga Island, two children and a woman.

Mr. Chee said disaster relief supplies including food and clothing from Red Cross Kavieng are being distributed to the 215 survivors, mostly students from the Anir group of island returning to school on the mainland.

One of the survivors, Bruno Sianlon of Anir, said the passengers had sought shelter from the rain when the vessel started tilting on its side.

"Warning shouts from the crew failed to register in the howling wind, rain and rough seas," he said.

"It was all so sudden; one moment the boat was tilting to one side and another, we were under water."

Most of the passengers managed to swim to safety.

Mr. Chee said three of the survivors experienced complications on Monday night prompting evacuation by road to Kavieng hospital.

"The others will be kept at the care center for observation before the appropriate authorities, including the Education Department, decide what to do with them," he said.



By Jack Metta

NAMATANAI, Papua New Guinea (February 2, 2000 – The National)---A father’s concern for his children almost led to tragedy for the entire family last Sunday.

"I was taking my eldest daughter to the mainland (New Ireland) to attend school at Madina High School and Albert (his 10-year-old son) wanted to come too," Bruno Sianlon, aged about 40, from Anir Island, told The National at the Nonga Base Hospital in Rabaul yesterday.

He is there caring for his son, one of two critically injured passengers who were evacuated to Rabaul after the marine mishap off the New Ireland town of Namatanai last Sunday.

The other injured person, a 14-year-old female student, died without regaining consciousness at the Nonga hospital.

The tragedy has claimed four lives while seven people are still missing, feared dead.

"He (Albert) had been sick for a while and seeing him standing there at the wharf made me feel very sad," said Mr. Sianlon.

Albert, despite recovering fully at the children's ward, has not yet come to terms with the ordeal.

"So, I took him on board MV Feni. We were asleep early that Sunday morning when I felt the ship tilting.

"It was so sudden. I could hear the crewmen shouting for the passengers to balance the ship. The next thing we knew we were in the water.

"I wasn't worried too much about Justina (his 15-year-old Grade 8 student at Madina) because I knew she could take care of herself," Mr. Sianlon said.

"My first thought was of Albert as we became submerged in the choppy seas. I instinctively threw my arms out in his direction in the murky waters, but he wasn't there. I stayed under as long as I could, but I could not find him.

"All around me people were bobbing to the surface. I would be lying if I said there was no panic. There was panic and the passengers were very frightened, including myself.

"I stayed around searching for Albert for as long as I could before the need for air made me surface again."

After a pause, he continued. "A head bobbed up near me and I recognized Albert straightaway. I reached for him and he was alive, but only just.

"I flung him on my back and we started swimming towards land.

"If we had been further out..." he didn't finish the sentence.

"Some of the others swimming towards the shore helped and we eventually reached the beach.

"Albert was unconscious and that's when the helicopter came and picked us up and took us and the other girl to Rabaul."

Mr. Sianlon, a strong Catholic, is praising God for sparing his life and that of his son Albert and daughter Justina.

He blames the tragedy on unfortunate circumstances.

"We've traveled aboard MV Feni many times before, particularly going to the mainland to sell our copra."

He said it seemed the vessel was not able to take the weight of the passengers as they scrambled for cover in the rain.

MV Feni is a 25-meter (82.5-foot) former Government-owned trawler bought by former Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan for the Anir people.

It was out of service for many years, sitting at Atam wharf in Rabaul. The boat was repaired and put into service by businessman Paul Tole.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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