PAREPARE, Indonesia – Huge waves and driving rain hindered rescuers Monday as they searched for about 250 people missing and feared dead after a ferry packed with passengers and cargo capsized in a cyclone off Indonesia's Sulawesi island.
At least 23 people have been rescued so far and one body found.
Many passengers were sleeping when the 700-ton Teratai Prima was struck by tropical cyclone Charlotte before dawn Sunday, officials and witnesses said. It sank about 30 miles off the coast of western Sulawesi.
"People were screaming, 'Help, help!"' said survivor Sampara Daeng Gassing, 35, who clung to a tire for two hours in the pounding storm but lost his 9-year-old son and father-in-law.
"I lost hold of my son and my father-in-law when a big wave hit me," Gassing said, weeping.
The ferry was slammed by 13-foot-high waves, said Gassing, who arrived Monday with other survivors in the port of Parepare — where the ferry journey began. He said he awoke about 10 minutes before it went down. The boat had been traveling to Samarinda on the Indonesian half of Borneo island.
The captain — who also survived — was being investigated for allegedly ignoring warnings from the Indonesian weather agency that conditions on the crossing were too dangerous, Transport Minister Jusman Syafi'i Djamal said.
Eighteen passengers and four crew members were rescued from the sea by fishing boats before the military launched a search operation at daybreak Monday, said Col. Jaka Santosa, who was heading the rescue operation.
The operation — which comprised three warships, several airplanes and a helicopter — later found another survivor and the body of a woman drifting in the Makassar Strait, the same treacherous waters where an Adam Air plane crashed on New Year's Day in 2007, killing all 102 onboard.
About 250 passengers and 17 crew were believed aboard the ship originally, Djamal said. However, passengers lists for such ferries in Indonesia are typically inaccurate, with tickets frequently sold on board without being properly tallied.
The boat sank so quickly that the crew "had no chance to ask the passengers to wear life jackets," Djamal said, citing the captain's account. "Many passengers were asleep."
The accident was most probably caused by extreme weather, rather than technical problems, the National Transportation Safety Committee concluded after initial inquiries, Djamal said.
The Teratai Prima, built in 1999, was inspected on Dec. 9 and found to be in good condition, said Abdul Gani, the Transport Ministry's top official for sea transport. It was carrying 18 tons of cargo.
Boats are a major form of transportation in Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and a population of 235 million. Poor enforcement of safety regulations and overcrowding causes accidents that claim hundreds of lives each year.
In December 2006, a crowded Indonesian ferry broke apart and sank in the Java Sea during a violent storm, killing more than 400 people.