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Public hearing into tragic sinking of MV Princess Ashika

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Oct. 27, 2009) - The first public hearing of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the MV Princess Ashika on the night of August 5, got into a vibrant start this afternoon, when Mosese Fakatou, a former Marine Engineer with the Ministry of Ports and Authority showed slide photos of holes and heavy corroded sides and floor of the ferry.

Mosese in his testimony said he was inspecting the MV Princess Ashika to establish its seaworthy for an insurance company, on August 4-5, before the Princess Ashika sailed away on its final voyage.

In his presentation Mosese showed 37 slide pictures of holes, heavily corroded areas of the walls and alleyway floors, and blocked scuppers. A scuppers are openings on the side of a ship at deck level to allow water to run off from the upper deck. The area around the scuppers were heavily corroded.

There was also a photo of a hole on the cargo deck, where one could see down to the ocean. Mosese pointed out that a wide area near the whole was also heavily corroded. He said he had to walk carefully on the whole floor area because he could have fallen through it.

Mosese also showed photos of the side of the vessel with its safety rails and ropes to enable passengers to get off the ferry easily in case of an emergency. He said that the rope was very old, and the gate itself was broken, rusty and dangerous for wandering passengers who could have easily fallen over board.

There were also photos of areas that were freshly painted but upon inspection it was evidently corroded.

Mosese was the last of ten witnesses who were called this morning to submit documents relating to the Princess Ashika, but he was the first witness to give testimony. He will continue to give his testimony tomorrow.

The first public hearing of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the MV Princess Ashika took place this morning at the Fa’onelua Convention Center and it was presided over by the Chairman of the Commission, Justice Warwick Andrew, and the two other Commissioners, Michael Handfield, a Master Mariner and Richard James, a Naval Architect.

The hearing started when the Assistant Counsel to the Commission Manuel Varitimos called ten witnesses. Each had been served with a summons to appearance today. They were also required to submit to the inquiry all documents that they have relating to the MV Ashika vessel.

The witnesses who were called and came forward to take their oath included; the Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet Busby Kautoke, Secretary for Transport ‘Eleni Mone, John Jonesse Managing Director for the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd, Viliami Tu’ipulotu Acting Director for the Marine Division, Tiofilusi Tiueti Acting Secretary for the Ministry of Finance, Inoke Vala Finau the CEO for Public Enterprise, Commander Lupeti Vi General Manager for Ports Authority, ‘Ofa Fa’anunu the Director of Meteorology, Soane Haseli Principal Coastal Officer for Meteorology and Mosese Fakatou, a Marine Engineer and former Deputy Secretary for the Marine and Ports and whom also conducted a Prevention Survey onboard the Princess Ashika vessel.

Shipping Corporation Board member Lord Dalgety was also due to appear but he is abroad so he was rescheduled for tomorrow.

Legal Counsels were, Kahu Afeaki who represent the former Minister of Transport; Sifa Tu’utafaiva for the Ministry of Transport and Tavake Afeaki for the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd. Tavake was not present but a counsel appeared for him.

Since the investigation began, about a week after the sinking of the ferry more than 100 people have been interviewed, and evidences have also been gathered from Tongans here and abroad. The hearing will be held continuously until the final report is presented Parliament and the Privy Council no later than March 31, 2010.

Hearings dates for this year will run until December 18 and adjourn for the Christmas holidays. Then it will restart on January 12, 2010.

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