Death toll from Indonesian ferry accident climbs to 20

Rescue team members and soldiers unloading the body of a victim at Shiva hospital in Wajo, South Sulawesi province, on Dec 23, 2015.
Rescue team members and soldiers unloading the body of a victim at Shiva hospital in Wajo, South Sulawesi province, on Dec 23, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (AFP) - The death toll from a ferry disaster in central Indonesia has climbed to 20, an official said on Thursday (Dec 24), though nearly 60 people remain missing five days after the boat sank in rough seas.

Search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told AFP 13 corpses were found Wednesday (Dec 23) in the southern gulf of Sulawesi island, where the ill-fated ferry sent a distress signal before losing contact at the weekend.

"To date, we've evacuated 60 people," Soelistyo said. "Forty have been found alive, and 20 dead."

The boat was believed to be carrying 116 people when it ran into trouble, Soelistyo said, citing passenger figures provided by the ferry operator.

Ten vessels - including navy warships - and two aircraft are scouring the seas for any sign of those still missing, while families wait anxiously for news in Siwa, the port town where the stricken vessel was heading.

One of the last found alive was the ferry's captain, who like other survivors described massive waves smashing into the boat before the engine died and the order was made to abandon ship.

Footage shot by a passenger and aired on Indonesian broadcaster TVOne showed the ferry listing and partially submerged, with large waves buffeting the stern.

Many passengers could be seen floating in the water wearing life jackets.

Soelistyo said the search, now in its fifth day, would continue until Saturday but could be extended by another few days.

"It depends on the result of the day to day operation," he said.

The Indonesian archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is heavily dependent on ferry services but fatal accidents are common.