TIGARAS, Indonesia (AP) — Distraught relatives slammed Indonesia’s government for not enforcing basic safety measures on passenger boats and pleaded Wednesday for a bigger search effort for more than 190 people presumed drowned after a ferry sank on a picturesque Sumatran lake early this week.
The wooden vessel, overcrowded with passengers as well as dozens of motorbikes, didn’t have a manifest and disaster officials have several times raised the number of people it was carrying as family members who rushed to Lake Toba in northern Sumatra provided information.
The boat was five times over its passenger capacity of 43 and equipped with only 45 life jackets, Transport Minister Budi Karya Sumadi and National Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi told a news conference. The latest information is that 192 people are missing, Syaugi said.
Only 18 survivors have been found — in bad weather within hours of the sinking Monday evening, which according to Syaugi occurred in waters at least 300 meters (984 feet) deep but only half a kilometer (0.3 mile) from an island that’s popular with visitors to the lake.
It’s possible many of the victims were still inside the sunken ferry, said North Sumatra province police chief Paulus Waterpau.
“Many survivors told authorities that less than half of them had jumped into the water before the boat sank,” he told The Associated Press.
Suwarni, whose 20-year-old son and his girlfriend were on the ferry, criticized the search and rescue operation as slow and insufficient.
“Millions of questions keep me from sleeping,” said Suwarni, who uses one name, between desperate sobs.
“What kind of government is this that can’t protect their own people from unnecessary accidents? And after the accident they’re not able to find the victims,” she said. “I beg help to everyone to quickly find my son and his girlfriend, even if their remains, please find my son, return him to me.”
Several dozen divers were searching at depths of up to 50 meters (82 feet), and an underwater drone was deployed to 200 meters (656 feet) below the surface, Syaugi said. More sophisticated underwater search methods require large ships that aren’t available on the lake, he said.
The 1,145-square kilometer (440-square mile) Lake Toba, formed out of an ancient super volcano, is a popular sightseeing destination on the island of Sumatra and one of 10 stunning natural attractions in Indonesia that the government aims to develop as magnets for international tourists.
The search involving 350 personnel and at least half a dozen boats has turned up items of clothing, bags and traces of oil from the ferry but just several victims.
Syaugi said four deaths were confirmed after three more bodies were found on Wednesday 3-5 kilometers (2-3 miles) from where the ferry sank.
He defended the search effort, which could continue for another 10 days, by saying that the agency, police, military and other personnel have been working “all out” and non-stop.
Survivor Juwita Sumbayak, from Medan, said she had crossed the lake many times on the same boat but on Monday it was terribly overcrowded because of holidays for the end of the Muslim holy month. In an interview, the distraught mother wept uncontrollably and called out the names of her husband and children who she believes drowned inside the boat.
She said that about 20 minutes into the journey, strong high waves caused the ferry to list to the right and take on water, sparking a panic among passengers. Then it was smacked hard by more waves and an empty small wooden boat. The ferry seemed to shake, Sumbayak said, then suddenly capsized.
“Many passengers without a life jacket jumped into the deep lake, but others drowned with the boat,” she said. “I jumped, I cried with fear.” She saw dozens of people in the water “but nobody can help.”
Another survivor, Riko Saputra, said the motorcycles packed on one side of the boat contributed to its listing. He said he was in the water for about an hour before being rescued and believed he only survived by holding onto a helmet that provided some flotation.
Cellphone video released earlier in the week by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency showed the crew of another ferry attempting to rescue people struggling in the waters shortly after the sinking but being hampered by bad weather and rough waters.
The disaster has cast a tragic pall over the holidays marking the end of Ramadan when tens of millions of Indonesians return to their hometowns.
Ferry tragedies are common in Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with weak enforcement of safety regulations often to blame.
Sumadi, the transport minister, said following the disaster all 40 commercial boat operators on Lake Toba are being audited by the government and suspended from sailing until they show safety standards are met.
A grief-stricken Muhaimin, 61, said he had lost eight members of his family including two sons, their wives and children.
“My sons, my daughter-in-laws and my grandchildren have been the victims of greedy businessmen who just want to take advantage of the holiday season without thinking of people’s safety,” he said. “It would not happen if they follow the rules. But they made money over our misery.”