Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Ferry Sinks

The seasons have changed. Rather than each day being hot and humid they are now hot, humid and around two in the afternoon, liquid. The rain storms that break out as if on a schedule are brief and violent. The wind kicks up out of the northwest, the clouds grows ominously gray and the rain obscures the ships anchored all around us. If the scuppers are left in like they were yesterday the water swashing up to the fishplate heels us over a good degree.

It was in one of these tropical deluges last week that a ferry began taking on water and eventually sank thirty miles to the west of our position. The Dumai Express 10 was traveling between two islands off Sumatra when large waves reportedly damaged the bow and she began to take on water.

As is so commonplace on board ferries in Asia the passenger manifest was falsified claiming that there were only 240 people on board when there were close to 300. The last count I heard was 29 dead and 17 people still missing with the ferry completely submerged south of the shipping lanes.

What struck me about this casualty was that it didn't occur somewhere remote and removed from help, nor did it occur swiftly. When I received the Sat-C request from the Rescue Coordination Center in Singapore to keep a lookout for bodies in the water I plotted the position of the sinking. It was right next to the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

With the amount of traffic in the area the confusion amongst the crew, all 14 of whom were rescued, must have been extreme for such a loss of life to occur. The ferry took half an hour to sink which means that there must have been a complete breakdown in the crew's handling of the emergency. Passengers were most likely never shown what to do or where to go in an emergency.

This incident is a common occurrence in Indonesia, a country with 17,000 islands. Had this happened in the United States or Singapore the reaction in government and law enforcement would be monumental but just across the strait overcrowded ferries and unprepared crews are the norm. Despite international regulations like SOLAS this is a reminder that the standards for life and safety at sea still vary widely from country to country.

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