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Sailing follows tragic sinking of Ashika last year

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Jan. 30, 2010) - THE MINISTER of Transport Noble Nuku asserted that he did not approve the sailing of the Motor Vessel (MV) Pulupaki to sail in the weekend, after it was detained in Nuku'alofa, Tonga.

He told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the Ashika, on January 29, that he was only aware that the Pulupaki had in fact sailed, on Monday this week.

His statement contradicted Transport Secretary 'Eleni Mone's statement under oath on January 26 that the Minister of Transport Noble Nuku had allowed the vessel sail in the weekend, after it was detained last week because it was unseaworthy.

The Minister who appeared for the first time at the inquiry on Friday morning, was asked by Counsel Manuel Varitimos if the evidence given by Transport Secretary 'Eleni Mone was false.

The Minister said he did not agree with her statement.

"Are you saying that is false?" said Counsel Varitimos.

Noble Nuku answered that Mone was not here, she was overseas.

When asked when was it that he first became aware that the Pulupaki intended to sail, after the Report dated January 14, 2010 by a New Zealand Marine Surveyor Bill Maddick had declared the Pulupaki as unseaworthy and unsafe.

Noble Nuku said he was informed for the first time on Monday [January 25]. He accepted that the Pulupaki had sailed after being detained on Saturday, January 23.

"It sailed as an unseaworthy ship?" Varitimos asked.

Noble Nuku said yes, but according to what he was briefed on by the Marine, the deficiency applied to passengers and cargo.

"And so the safety of the crew does not matter?" asked Varitimos.

"I didn't say the crew doesn't matter," said the Minister.

Noble Nuku accepted that it was unlawful to send an unseaworthy ship to sea whether it is carrying passengers or cargo.

He told the inquiry that he had not sought any advice from Crown Law on the matter.

He said this was in a case of emergency. "I thought they needed to help to save lives and that was always on my mind," he said.

"Did you know that the Director of Marine Viliami Tu'ipulotu in his evidence after signing an extensive list of deficiencies in relation to the Ashika on July 3, 2009 also signed a Certificate of Seaworthiness on the exact day. And that in evidence he agreed that the vessel was unseaworthy every time it sailed and it was in such poor condition that he would not allow his family to travel on?" Counsel Varitimos said.

The Minister agreed that the Director signed the Certificate of Seaworthiness for the Ashika.

"I suggest that he is incompetent and unfit as Acting Director or Director?" said Varitimos.

The Minister said he had no comment.

"But you as a Minister of Transport you have a great responsibility to ensure the safety of people who travel on ships in Tonga," Varitimos said.

Noble Nuku agreed.

He agreed that the Director was incompetent in relation to his dealing with the Ashika, but he did not fully accept that he was unfit to hold the Director position.

Noble Nuku said he had a meeting on Monday with Eleni Mone, Tu'ipulotu and a Deputy Secretary Sione 'Akau'ola about the issue of the Pulupaki, when Mone raised the issue that she was not aware that the Pulupaki vessel had sailed.

The counsel put to him that Mone said in evidence, that he, Nuku, approved the vessel to sail.

"No," said Noble Nuku.

He denied advising or approving or giving any indication for the action to be taken for the vessel to sail.

He was asked whether there was any reason for Mone to misunderstand what was he said over whether he approved or disapproved for the sailing, and Noble Nuku said he did not know.

"What did you say in the meeting?" asked the counsel.

Noble Nuku said he asked for information and added that Tu'ipulotu advised him that the vessel sailed for an emergency and the law allowed the vessel to sail under emergency, as there was a clause in the Act on emergencies. "I think he was right according to what I was briefed on," he said.

Noble Nuku said he was aware on January 18, 2010, that the Pulupaki was unseaworthy, and then at the meeting on Monday he was aware that it sailed unseaworthy, but he was not aware that it was an offence under Shipping Act.

"Did you ask Tu'ipulotu where was the vessel going to?" said Counsel Varitimos.

Noble Nuku answered that he was told that it was sailing to help the company's other vessel, an oil tanker that was drifting to a reef.

"Did it cross your mind to ask whether there were other ships deemed seaworthy and closer that could have assisted?" Counsel Varitimos said.

He replied that is why he referred it to Tu'ipulotu.

"Minister, you are the head of Transport and you detained an unseaworthy ship. Do you know it is an offence to send an unseaworthy ship to sea?" said Counsel Varitimos

Noble Nuku said he did not know, and added that Tu'ipulotu made the decision to help and that's the reason.

He agreed that he had enough information on January 22 to realize the vessel should not be allowed to sail.

"Yes it was detained," he said, adding that it was allowed to sail as they were told to fix deficiencies and the ship could sail anytime.

The Minister also confirmed knowing the Port Authority's concerns about the seaworthiness of the Pulupaki when they refused to allow it back in December.

The Minister confirmed to the inquiry that the Marine Director gave him photos of the Pulupaki before Christmas last year. And what condition was the vessel in, asked the counsel?

He said five to six items needed to be fixed.

Noble Nuku said that since August when took up the job his only seafaring experience was travelling on the Alaimoana between Tongatapu to 'Eua.

"Are you aware that Pulupaki is a vessel that is unseaworthy and unsafe?" asked the counsel.

"The survey reported to me that it could be operated with the maintenance done at the same time," said Noble Nuku.

He was told it was unseaworthy and unsafe at a later stage by a different survey - the survey done by Bill Maddick.

The Minister who had a copy provided the inquiry with the report by Bill Maddick dated January 14. He said they first discussed the issue prior to the report.

The Minister said Maddick was firstly of the opinion and proposed that if the emergency package for safety was put in place then Pulupaki could sail.

He said the safety package meant lifeboats and other issues of safety. But he also confirmed no emergency package was put in place on the vessel and it was detained.

The Minister said according to his talk with Maddick he said if the emergency package was done then it coulld sail.

"But Lord Nuku I suggest the report very clearly stated the vessel was unseaworthy," said Varitimos, and the minister agreed.

The Minister asserted he was informed that the Port Authority last year was concerned about the Pulupaki's seaworthiness. He was also aware that Commander Vi shortly before Christmas made a public announcement that the Port Authority would not allow the Pulupaki to return to Nuku'alofa after it sailed on December 22 because it was unseaworthy.

There was a Cabinet Meeting on the same day with the Prime Minister was present and about 10 cabinet members present.

He said the issue discussed was that the Port Authority did not allow the vessel back to wharf at the same time there was a survey from New Zealand who asked Port Authority permission for the vessel to anchor at Queen Salote for survey.

But when asked whether it crossed his mind that Commander Vi might have a good reason for not allowing back the vessel? He said no he didn't think of it and no one in Cabinet ever raised as to the reason behind the announcement.

He was aware there was a letter dated December 22 from the Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet to Commander Vi.

The letter stated that the public announcement had been brought to the attention of the Cabinet and because of the severity of the matter, Cabinet had directed that Pulupaki be permitted to return to Queen Salote Wharf and that the Port work closely with Transport.

Noble Nuku said that all cabinet members had unanimously voted in favour of the decision.

He denied that he had serious concerns about the Pulupaki at the time.

"Did you know that prior to Christmas last year it set sail and was heavily overloaded with passengers?" said Varitimos.

Noble Nuku said no, not really, and he only knew later after the vessel left.

He also agreed that he was aware that most of the Board of the Port Authority members had been changed by the direction of cabinet.

The Minister was asked whether he was present in a particular Cabinet Meeting in January that resolved that most Board members of the Board Authority be changed. He said, yes, he was present as well as the Prime Minister who was Chairman of the Board.

When was asked if the PM put a submission to Cabinet for most of the Board members to be removed, he thought it was the chairman who submitted the paper to cabinet. Nuku was directed to look for it and produce it to the inquiry.

He was also asked to produce a copy of the decision that advised Vi to allow the vessel back to Nuku'alofa and a copy of the December 22 meeting.

The Counsel put to him "that Tu'ipulotu in his evidence said that you spoke to 'Uliti Uata on Saturday morning [January 23]?"

The Minister said Uata only informed him about the problem with his other vessel Punalei. But denied allowing the Pulupaki to sail as he referred him to talk to Tu'ipulotu.

The Minister claimed he was unaware that 'Uliti wanted the ship to sail as he was only informed of the problem, and he never asked him for a permission to sail the Pulupaki.

The Minister was asked by the inquiry to produce cabinet decisions and any documents in relation to Ashika and the Pulupaki before the end of the day.

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