Tonga minister resigns after sinking

20:13, Aug 23 2009
Tonga ferry disaster survivors
FERRY DISASTER: Survivors of Princess Ashika pray after their arrival at Fu'amotu airport. Around 93 people are still believed to be missing and two bodies have been found.

Tonga's Minister of Transport, Paul Karalus, has resigned his post following last week's ferry disaster.

The resignation comes as navy divers from New Zealand and Australia continue to try and find the wreck of the Princess Ashika and the 93 bodies understood to be still trapped inside the ferry's cabins.

Two people have been confirmed dead.

Mr Karalus announced his resignation today, saying it was necessary to enable a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sinking.

''My ministry is the one that is the subject of the Royal Commission so one, from a legal perspective if no other, has to step aside to allow the process,'' he told Radio New Zealand.

''One cannot be judge and judged at the same time.''

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Mr Karalus said his resignation was not an admission of responsibility and maintained that the Princess Ashika was seaworthy.

''We carried out our duties with due care and diligence,'' he said.

Mr Key confirmed he had spoken to Tonga's Prime Minister Feleti Sevele and had offered New Zealand's help in finding a replacement ferry.

''I've asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade today to have a look at that and see what alternatives might be available,'' Prime Minister John Key told TV One News.

''It's certainly going to leave them with quite a logistics issue.''

TV3 News reported the Tongan tragedy could turn out to be a good thing for the tiny island of Tokelau, which has been asking New Zealand for help to replace its old ferry.

The Government might look for a replacement for that ferry as well to avert another potential disaster, the report said.

FERRY LEAKED FOR HOURS BEFORE SINKING

Princess Ashika was leaking hours before it capsized, with crew using buckets to bail out water because pumps failed to work, it is claimed.

MP and ship owner 'Uliti Uata said the inter-island ferry had begun leaking on its cargo deck soon after it left Nuku'alofa last Wednesday and should have returned to port.

Mr Uata, whose company runs rival ferry MV Pulupaki, said he had inspected Princess Ashika while it was drydocked in Suva, Fiji, just before it went to Tonga.

He said the hull was holed and welds over thin steel plates were not holding. Workers had filled the holes with cement, he said.

He also believes the ship was not suited to sea journeys. "It is a very awful ship, it is designed to operate on smooth water," Mr Uata said. "I believed they had pumps but the pumps did not work properly. The water started to fill up the cargo deck ... They used buckets to try and get the water out ...

"They [the crew] should have come back immediately as soon as they found there was a leak, or go to the nearest port. To me as a ship owner, this was not an accident."

Pulupaki left Nuku'alofa an hour before Princess Ashika on the night it sank. When a distress call was made Pulupaki turned around and plucked most of the surviving passengers from the sea. Mr Uata said sea conditions were normal.

Mr Uata's son Thomas said Princess Ashika was certified to sail by the Tongan Government which owned it. It could only sail in Tongan, Samoan and Fijian waters as it did not meet international standards, he said.

"When we rescued the crew they told us there the ship had been leaking when it left port and they used buckets to get the water out."

The ferry had been carrying an ambulance and heavy timber provided by an American church for Vava'u Hospital. Thomas Uata believes the captain was under pressure to get the cargo north.

"There was a shift in the cargo inside," he said. "We really think this is what happened."

FERRY 'UNSEAWORTHY' - SKIPPER

The allegations follow claims by the skipper of the Princess Ashika, who said the ferry was unseaworthy and the Tongan government knew there were problems with it.

But the claims of captain Maka Tuputupu and others about the ferry's seaworthiness have been denied by Tonga's Transport Minister Paul Karalus.

Mr Tuputupu said the waves were less than one metre high when the ship sank.

He was on the bridge making mayday calls and was the last person off the ship. "Water was up around my head. It rolled over when I was still on the bridge."

He managed to find a hatch and swam several metres to the surface.

He said he was under pressure to sail even though he feared for the ship's seaworthiness.

The Tongan government should take responsibility for the disaster as it knew there were problems with the ship, he said. The Princess Ashika was bought by the government-owned Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, from Fiji just two months earlier.

The MV Pulupaki was the first ship to arrive at the scene of the sinking and pulled survivors from the water. Its owner, Tu'i Uata, said the Princess Ashika "was in bad shape", Radio New Zealand reported.

Workers trying to take rust out of it when it first arrived in Tonga were able to punch their hammers through the hull of the lower deck, he said.

Many community leaders have also claimed the ferry had a poor reputation in Fiji and was to be sold for scrap metal.

DECISION TO SAIL CAPTAIN'S - PM

But Transport Minister Paul Karalus denied the claims and said the boat had proven its seaworthiness prior to the tragedy.

"We are confident that the actual (maritime safety) requirements internationally are met and that is subject to audit."

And the Tongan Prime Minister, Feleti Sevele, said that while he would not comment on the captain's claims, it was up to the skipper not to sail if he believed the ship was not up to standard, Radio New Zealand reported.

The joint navy dive team arrived in Tonga at the weekend to scour the seabed about 85 kilometres from Nuku'alofa.

Poor conditions called a halt to the sea search yesterday, with the divers unlikely to return till at least tonight.

Seabed depths in the search area vary between 35m and 150m. However, the sonar equipment works to a depth of only 100m.

Police have revealed that the number of passengers would rise above the previous estimate of 149. A New Zealander, Sisiliah Puleheloto, 24, is among those feared dead.

-  with NZPA