Captain of Sunken Tonga Ferry Says He Was Pressured to Sail

The captain of the Tongan ferry that sank leaving 93 missing and presumed dead said Monday he was pressured into sailing the vessel even though authorities knew the ship had problems.

Tonga's Prime Minister Feleti Sevele and Transport Minister Paul Karalus have consistently stated that the vessel was fully seaworthy, was fully certificated for the service and met all international maritime standards.

No survivors have been found since an initial rescue of 54 people and the recovery of two bodies after the Princess Ashika sank last Wednesday. The assumed death toll makes the tragedy one of the small country's worst in decades.

The cause of the disaster was not known. Survivors described the ferry rocking violently from side to side and waves breaking into the lower deck before it went under, though officials said weather conditions were mild.

Ferry captain Maka Tuputupu blamed the sinking on rusted loading ramps that allowed water into the boat, and said the Tongan government should take responsibility because it knew there were problems with the ship.

"The government knows everything about the boat; they know because they surveyed the boat," he told New Zealand's TV3 News on Monday.

Tuputupu said waves were only three feet high (one meter) when the ferry sank.

Tu'i Uata, the owner of the first vessel to reach the accident scene, said the Princess Ashika had been berthed beside his own ship and even without any cargo on board, the ferry was low in the water. He told New Zealand's National Radio that water had been pumped out of the ferry for the whole day before it sailed and it should never have been at sea.

Uata also told the network he saw a hammer go through the hull during rust repairs when the ferry first arrived in Tonga, after a troubled journey from Fiji.

Sevele announced Monday that a Royal Commission will be set up to investigate the disaster and a special session of Parliament will be held Tuesday.

Earlier he addressed the island nation in a special television broadcast, offering condolences to those affected by the sinking and announcing a fund set aside for families directly affected by the tragedy.

Searchers suspended the underwater hunt for the sunken ferry on Monday because rough weather made it too dangerous for divers.

Of 149 people believed to be onboard the ferry when it capsized, 54 were rescued within hours and two bodies were recovered, leaving 93 others unaccounted for, Tongan police Chief Inspector Sokopeti To'ia told The Associated Press. The numbers have varied because of inconsistencies between passenger lists and the accounts of survivors.

The confirmed dead were a British man living in New Zealand and a Polynesian woman. One Japanese citizen, and two each from Germany and France were among the missing, police said. Ten children were unaccounted for along with at least 33 women.

Navy divers from Australia and New Zealand began looking for the wreck on Saturday using an unmanned explorer to search an area from where an emergency distress call was broadcast from the ferry, about 55 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Nuku'alofa.

So far nothing has been found, New Zealand navy Lt. Cmdr. Andrew McMillan said.

"With the topography, with the uncertainty of where the vessel has gone down, we have to face the realization that we might not even be able to find it," McMillan said.

Tongan police commander Chris Kelley said Monday he is loathe to call off the search for survivors.

Tonga, an archipelago of 169 islands and 120,000 people in the South Pacific about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand, is regularly buffeted by destructive cyclones and lies near an earthquake fault-line. But few natural disasters have caused many deaths.