New Zealand plays major role in Tongan ferry rescue

One of New Zealand’s largest international search and rescue responses was launched by the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) in early August, following the sinking of Tongan ferry Princess Ashika.

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) General Manager Safety Services Nigel Clifford said the search and rescue operation was initiated by RCCNZ on 5 August, after Princess Ashika sank near Nuku’alofa, Tonga, with at least 129 people believed to have been on board.

“With the accident occurring inside New Zealand’s area of responsibility for search and rescue, our immediate priority was to provide a co-ordinated rescue response, using whatever local, national and international resources were appropriate to help rescue those in distress,” says Nigel.

Nigel said RCCNZ swung into action after the Maritime Operations Centre (Maritime Radio Service) picked up a mayday call just before 11 pm from Princess Ashika, in which the master gave the vessel’s position and advised the ferry was sinking. The ferry was heading from the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa to Ha’afeva, in the Nomuka Islands group.

A few minutes later, RCCNZ received a distress beacon alert from the vessel confirming its last reported position – about 46 nautical miles (86 km) north-east of Nuku’alofa.

Over the next 3 1/2 days, a range of resources were tasked by RCCNZ to scour the ocean for survivors. These included two Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P3 Orion aircraft, merchant vessels, and numerous local vessels – including two Tongan Navy patrol boats.

On-scene co-ordination of the search was carried out by RNZAF Orions, with support from local vessels on the water. Ongoing search area planning and overall co-ordination was provided by RCCNZ from its operations centre in Wellington.

With RCCNZ staff working around-the-clock and the support of personnel from RNZAF, New Zealand Police, Tongan Police, Tongan Navy, New Zealand and Tongan maritime radio services and the skippers of local search vessels, a search area of hundreds of square miles was covered..

Nigel said the operation was one of the largest maritime searches ever conducted by RCCNZ.

Fifty-four people were rescued alive from the ferry’s liferafts and two people were found dead. Nigel said incomplete passenger lists and differing accounts of the number of people believed to have been on board meant it was still unclear exactly how many may have been lost when the ferry sank.

“Sadly, despite the best efforts of everyone involved in the search over many days, at least 73 people still remained unaccounted for at the conclusion of the search,” says Nigel. “These are believed to be those who were trapped on board when the ferry sank – and our thoughts are with the people of Tonga as they come to terms with this terrible loss.”

Divers from the Royal New Zealand Navy, with support from the Tongan Defence Force and the Royal Australian Navy, have since located the wreck of Princess Ashika, lying upright on the sea floor in 110 metres of water about 11 nautical miles (20 km) from the Nomuka Islands group. However, because of the vessel’s depth, they were unable to dive to the wreck and recover anyone still on board.

An MNZ rules specialist was sent to Tonga as part of a team of independent investigators led by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, provided by the New Zealand Government to assist in determining the causes of the accident.

News of the tragedy was a double blow for the Pacific region, coming less than a month after the loss of an interisland ferry near the tiny island nation of Kiribati, in which 33 people are believed to have died.