Port Moresby Inquiry Condemns Rabaul Shipping Owner’s Actions

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PNG safety authority found to be operating far below standards

By Leslie Omaro

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, June 7, 2012) – Peter Sharp placed profits over the safety of passengers and crew in the running of his ferry service, a Papua New Guinea Commission of Inquiry into the country’s worst maritime disaster was told on the final day of hearings in Port Moresby yesterday.

After 30 days, the inquiry into the sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen came to a close at Muruk House in Waigani where it all started two months ago on April 11.

An overloaded Rabaul Queen sank on Feb 2 in heavy weather nine nautical miles off Finschhafen, Morobe.

The inquiry, which also conducted hearings in Lae, Buka, Kimbe and Rabaul, has been told by survivors they believed there was well over 400 passengers packed on board although passenger manifests Rabaul Shipping owner Sharp produced say there were 360 passengers, 14 crew and two canteen boys at the time.

Official figures say only 237 people were rescued from a ship that was surveyed to carry 295 passengers.

The ship was struck by three huge waves in succession before capsizing and sinking quickly.

Counsel assisting the commission, Mal Varitimos and Sharp’s lawyer Erick Andersen both presented submissions to the commission head Warwick Andrew yesterday.

Andrew, from Australia, is expected to hand his report to Prime Minister Peter O’Neill on June 30.

In his submission, Varitimos said the Rabaul Queen’s captain, Anthony Tsiau, did not do any trim and stability calculations prior to the vessel departing and in fact had not seen the trim and stability book.

"Secondly, he did not make any independent checks of the weather forecasts with the PNG weather service but accepted Captain Sharp’s.

"He sailed the vessel when he knew that officers on the vessel were not appropriately qualified.

"He was aware the vessel was overcrowded and carrying many more passengers than permitted by the PNG survey certificate.

"Additionally, he should never have sailed the vessel from Kimbe because of the (near gale force) weather forecast and conditions.

"Also, having departed, he should have sought shelter for the vessel and slowed the speed of the vessel.

"Furthermore, the captain submitted he should have ensured the appropriate safety and emergency drills were conducted prior to departure from Kimbe and passengers aware of muster stations."

In relation to the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA), Varitimos said the concept of having a properly operating NMSA where there was no conflict was obviously a good one.

"But the evidence demonstrates that the Department of Transport and subsequently NMSA are and were dysfunctional at least in respect of the maritime safety matters.

"The evidence demonstrates that NMSA has had serious internal conflict at board level for long periods.

"The records indicate that there has probably only been one board meeting in the last 12 months held by NMSA.

"The evidence also establishes that NMSA have insufficient surveyors and inspectors to properly carry out their duties and that many of them in any event have not properly carried out their basic functions."

Varitimos also submitted that Sharp deliberately misled the insurers, QBE, and subsequently Pacific Assurance Ltd as to the number of passengers the vessel was licensed to carry.

"In fact, Captain Sharp signed at least one false declaration in this regard that’s before the commission," Varitimos said.

Sharp has consistently told the commission that loss of his ship was an "act of God" and that he was not responsible for the disaster.

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