JAKARTA, Indonesia – Navy ships scoured the rough Java Sea Sunday in search of survivors from a ferry that sank in a storm off central Indonesia, leaving more than 500 people missing, officials said.
More than a day after the accident, 109 survivors had been found, Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa told reporters in the capital, Jakarta, late Saturday.
The Senopati Nusantara had been on a 48-hour trip to Java from Borneo island when 5-meter (15-foot) waves crashed over the deck, said Slamet Bustam, an official at Semarang port, the ferry's destination.
It is believed to have had 638 people on board, Radjasa said. Witnesses reported seeing lifeboats with more survivors and most people had donned life jackets. No bodies had been recovered.
Indonesia's tropical waters are between 20 degrees Centigrade and 32 degrees centigrade (72 Fahrenheit and 84 Fahrenheit). People have been known to survive days at sea.
Survivors said the boat — pounded by heavy waves for more than 10 hours — capsized late Friday night.
"It suddenly veered to one side, and the TV and fridges fell over," Irfan Setiawan said on Metro TV.
He said a piece of debris hit him and he sank with the ship, but fought his way to the surface and got into a lifeboat.
Others clung on to pieces of wood or swam to nearby islands.
Another survivor, Budi Susilo, said he saw three people drown after losing their grip on an overturned raft.
"We told them to hold on, but they ran out of energy," he told reporters.
Four naval ships, several other vessels and at least two aircraft have been combing the area from where the ship had last radio contact with port authorities, but poor visibility and stormy seas hindered their effort.
Officials said the car ferry, built in Japan in 1990, had a capacity of 850 passengers and had been in good condition.
They said bad weather likely caused the accident.
"We all just prayed as the waves got higher," said passenger Cholid, who survived by clinging to wooden planks.
"I was going upstairs to try to help my daughter, but the ship suddenly broke up and I was thrown out. I lost her," said Cholid, who gave a single name.
Ferries are a main mode of transportation in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with 220 million people. Overcrowding and poorly enforced safety standards mean accidents are common.