Solomon Island children drown after rescue 'delayed because rescue helicopter bill hadn't been paid'

Children at the funeral service of Dalzinia Kioniau, one of 17 people who died in the tragedy.
JAMES BRICKWOOD/FAIRFAX

Children at the funeral service of Dalzinia Kioniau, one of 17 people who died in the tragedy.

At least 17 people including 13 children from a village church group in the Solomon Islands have drowned after a rescue mission was reportedly delayed for lack of funds when their boat sank between islands.

The group, which was travelling from the island of Malaita to the nation's main island, Guadalcanal, set off in an open "banana" boat powered by outboard engines when it was swamped  while changing petrol tanks and sank shortly before midday last Wednesday.

The victims ages are unknown, though the children were all between 11 and 16.

Mourners at the funeral service for Dalzinia Kioniau who drowned after spending hours in the water.
JAMES BRICKWOOD/FAIRFAX

Mourners at the funeral service for Dalzinia Kioniau who drowned after spending hours in the water.

Hours after it failed to arrive a second boat travelled back along its route, before returning to shore and raised the alarm.

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Clergy at the funeral service for Dalzinia Kioniau.
JAMES BRICKWOOD/FAIRFAX

Clergy at the funeral service for Dalzinia Kioniau.

The premier of Malaita, Peter Ramohia, said that after he first heard reports of the tragedy on Wednesday afternoon he immediately contacted the national rescue centre to check on their progress, only to be told that the authority had no money to mount a rescue operation.

"I started calling the rescue centre to arrange for a rescue, what they told me was that they had no funds to support a rescue. [They said] they actually had bills with the helicopter company," he said.

The first rescues were not made until late the following morning by private vessels that had set off from Malaita and Guadalcanal. Of the 24 people who set off to raise funds for their church 17 are thought to be dead, though so far only five bodies have been recovered.

Pallbearers at Holy Cross Cathedral in Honiara.
JAMES BRICKWOOD/FAIRFAX

Pallbearers at Holy Cross Cathedral in Honiara.

Among the dead are five members of Maunitee family, including both parents, Aloisio and Anna. They had left one child at home in the care of extended family.

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One surviving woman, Stivesen Osiabu, swam for hours with a small group including her daughter, Dalzinia, after tearing up the boat's single life jacket to share it among three girls.

Dalzinia died in the arms of the group sometime on Wednesday night and when Stivesen was rescued on Thursday, she was found with her daughter's body tied to her waist so she would not be lost at sea. The body of Dalzinia's father has yet to be found.

Pallbearers carry the coffin of Dalzinia Kioniau.
JAMES BRICKWOOD/FAIRFAX

Pallbearers carry the coffin of Dalzinia Kioniau.

Dalzinia's was the single body present at funeral held at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in the capital, Honiara, on Monday afternoon, where the other dead and missing were represented by candles.

Speaking on behalf of the families at the funeral was their local member of parliament, John Maneniaru, who comes from a neighbouring village, and as such is considered a cousin, uncle or aunt to all those on board.

He spoke of the staggering loss to the village of so many of its youth. He spoke of how these were the people who would have run through the village giving it its life, collected its water and firewood, climbed for coconuts and betel nuts.

He said it was "the strong desire of the government to assist" but there was very little the government could do in the circumstances.

Timothy Harris, the director of the Solomon Islands Maritime Safety Administration, which oversees the Maritime Rescue Centre, rejected the suggestion that the rescue response had been slow.

He said logbooks showed the first notification of the disaster was received at 2.30pm and a radio broadcast was immediately made to ships in the area, which was responded to by the M.V. Maetalau. He said the MRCC asked the Royal Solomon Islands Police Maritime Unit to deploy a patrol boat, and understood that it would depart at 3am on Thursday.

He said later in the day the MRCC was informed that due to mechanical faults it had not sailed. A second patrol boat was not dispatched until Friday afternoon.

In a statement he confirmed that there have been occasions on which aircraft have not been dispatched due to overdue bills, but said this was not the responsibility of his office.

"Where SIMSA does have problems is when we request aircraft or helicopters and they are mobilised, but the government cannot pay the cost," he said.

"This means that the next time we need a helicopter, if the invoice from the last incident has not been paid, the helicopter owners are reluctant to mobilise the unit until a 'good samaritan' guarantees payment.

He said his office records show that Ramohia did not call until Thursday, rather than Wednesday, as Ramohia said.

Though the organisation would go through a debriefing process, Harris said he was so far satisfied that protocols had been properly followed and the organisation had worked as it should given limited resources available to government agencies.

Also at the funeral was Luke Vaikawi, director of the Royal Solomon Islands Maritime Unit. He said though he was aware the rescue was slow to start, he was not aware of any delay caused by lack of funds. He said that Maritime Police were not notified of the sinking by the MRCC until late on Thursday morning. He said that travelling with 24 people in a single boat, commonly referred to as a "banana boat" locally, was "suicide".

The Anglican Archbishop of Melanesia, George Tekeli, said that lack of funds was no excuse not to launch a rescue mission. "There are so many places they could have gone to for help, they could have called the church, they could have called RAMSI," he said, referring to the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands that has secured the nation's peace in security since civil strife in 2003.

The tragedy - and the perceived failure of authorities to render timely assistance - comes at a time when many Solomon Islanders are nervous about a future without RAMSI, which the nation will farewell with a week of festivities starting on Monday.

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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