SYDNEY - There is grief and anger on the small South Pacific Island nation of Kiribati after the disappearance of a ferry carrying about 80 people. Many of those on board were students heading back to school for the start of term.
This is the worst-ever loss of life on the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Kiribati.
The sinking of an interisland ferry in January is thought to have claimed at least 81 lives, among them many children and teenagers. It is thought that some whole families have drowned.
Only seven survivors have been found, more than a week after the ferry disappeared. They were rescued from a small wooden dinghy that had no engine, water, food or radio. They are reported to be in reasonable health. An international search effort involving New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. was abandoned Friday. Local boats will continue the search, but the expectation is they will be looking for bodies, not survivors.
Former Kiribati President Anote Tong says such loss of life is a terrible blow.
“This is by far the biggest disaster in terms of numbers. It has shocked the nation. The brightest of the islands. These are the ones that go to school, have managed to go to school, and so it will be a very significant impact.”
The ferry left on January 18 for what was supposed to have been a routine two-day trip, covering 260 kilometers, but it never arrived at Kiribati’s main island of Tarawa.
Kiribati comprises 33 atolls and reef islands that span millions of square kilometers in the Pacific Ocean. The mood among its 115,000 inhabitants has turned from hope to anger. In 2013, another maritime tragedy claimed 35 lives, yet some islanders complain that little appears to have been done to address safety concerns identified after the earlier tragedy.
Politicians are also asking questions after the most recent disaster, and want to know why it took eight days to raise the alarm after the ferry went missing. One Kiribati MP said the missing ferry was “unseaworthy” and should never have been allowed to set sail.
Kiribati, an archipelago about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, is a former British colony and gained independence in 1979.