FIRST FERRY SURVIVOR TESTIFIES IN TONGA INQUIRY

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Lemoto saw water gushing through hull, swamping cargo

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Nov. 9, 2009) – TANGIMANA Lemoto (25) the first survivor to give testimony at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the September sinking of the MV Princess Ashika this morning told of water forging through the cargo hull causing vehicles to move below deck. The vessel then rocked intensively from side to side before sinking before midnight on August 5.

Assisting Counsel to the Commission, Manuel Varitimos, restructured his witnesses following John Jonesse's suspension as SCP Managing Director, and his need to find new counsel that adjourned the inquiry last Friday.

Tangimana from Ha'ateiho in Tongatapu said on the Ashika's final voyage on August 5 he was travelling with his younger brother Mesui and friends, including Salesi Havili, to take goods to his brother in law who was a doctor in Vava'u. He confirmed to the inquiry that his friend Salesi died in the sinking.

The witness said he went onto the ferry after 4pm at the Queen Salote Wharf. He went up onto the open side of the passenger deck and looked down at the side of the vessel and noticed that work was done to chip away corrosion. He also saw that at the front where the anchor was situated he saw rust and corrosion and on the port (left) side of the vessel which was swelling with rust but it was painted over.

Upon questioning by the Counsel on the condition of the ferry, the witness reaffirmed that it was unfit to sail due to the level of corrosion it contained. He said during the sailing he looked down from the observation deck to the cargo area and saw that seawater was coming in through the bow ramp on both sides and from underneath hitting the cargo below deck.

Some of the cargoes were vehicles that had pieces of timber placed on the tyres to prevent it from moving. The witness confirmed the strength of the incoming water into the cargo area forced the timber away from the tyres and was floating. The water that came through was blowing in through holes and he watched the water forging in for about two hours and thought it must be normal for the Ashika. He said at this stage he did not see any crew bailing water out.

At one point during the sailing the witness was in the passenger deck with his younger brother when the ferry started to rock from side to side, he recollected that Nuku'alofa was still in sight and it was around five hours before the ferry sank before midnight. He said he was eating his noodles when a friend, Filipe Tau'ataina, a crew member came down and told him to come up to the wheel bridge.

He remained there while the rocking persisted and it was getting worse so he went down to go to the bathroom. Standing on the side of the observation deck he saw that the cargo deck was filled with water before returning to the wheel bridge. He lay down with the chief mate Semisi Pomale outside the wheel area when the rocking got worse and some of the crew came up with reports that a lot of water was coming into the cargo below deck. He estimated this was about an hour before the vessel sank.

One hour before vessel sank he felt strange so he went and stood on the steps leading down from the bridge and looked into the cargo deck and saw the that the Ministry of Health vehicles, which included a four wheel Pajero and an ambulance were moving towards the bow ramp.

He said he saw that the water had completely engulfed the Pajero, which was nearer to the bow ramp while the water was up to the doorhandle of the ambulance. The part to the starboard (left) side of the vessel took in more water than the port side and at this time the boat seriously tilted to the board side just before midnight.

The witness said he had trouble trying to climb up to the observation deck because the vessel seriously tilted towards the board (left) side for 20 minutes before sinking. He agreed with the counsel's suggestion that the intense rocking of the boat was not just caused by the wave, but because the vessel was taking in water.

The witness confirmed that before the ferry sank he was not aware of any loudspeaker warning to passengers, there was no safety or emergency information given, nor were there any directions given to wear lifejackets or as to where the life rafts were kept. But while on the wheel bridge he heard the captain calling for Mayday help before sinking.

As the water came up to where the witness was standing, he jumped into the sea and it wasn't long before he was drawn underwater on the side of the vessel. He could not recall how long he went down but he managed to get up and was one of those rescued from the life rafts including his brother Mesui.

This week the inquiry is expected to call more survivors as witnesses to give evidence on the sinking.

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