JAKARTA • Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ordered an overhaul of water transportation safety standards in the wake of the Lake Toba tragedy where a ferry believed to be carrying more than 200 people capsized in the 500m-deep lake on Monday afternoon.
"I am asking for this kind of accident to not happen again and I have ordered the transportation minister to evaluate all safety standards for water transportation," the President said on Wednesday at Bogor Palace in West Java.
The accident in Lake Toba, North Sumatra, the worst in years, highlighted the glaring lack of safety procedures for water transportation.
The authorities have struggled to provide accurate information regarding the number of people on board the ill-fated ferry, with the boat sailing without a permit (known as an SIB) and the operator refusing to release a manifest - a document listing the vessel's cargo, passengers and crew. It is unclear if such a document exists.
The vessel, KM Sinar Bangun, has the capacity to carry around 43 people, with only 45 life jackets, but it is widely believed the number of people on board exceeded 200.
As of Wednesday, the authorities said they had found only 22 passengers, four of whom were dead, but they had also received reports that a staggering 192 people were reported missing and feared to be trapped inside the sunken vessel.
Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said he did not believe it was possible for the boat to carry that many people.
"I say it is possible to carry 80 people, but 200 people wouldn't fit."
The minister, however, believed that overcapacity could still be the culprit. "The potential for overcapacity is there, as the (ship operator) was reluctant to release the manifest and had no SIB. "
National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) head M. Syaugi said that so far, the deceased victims had been found within 3km to 5km of the accident area.
"We are making a concerted effort (to find the passengers), even using remote underwater vehicles," he said on Wednesday.
He said the Basarnas team had searched up to 50m deep into the world's largest volcanic lake. The team faced obstacles, such as the weather and the freezing temperature of the water, meaning that diving could only be done during daylight hours, Mr Syaugi said.
The search is slated to go on for seven days, although it might be extended to 10 days if the victims remain missing. "We actually need to know the number of passengers, it is still unclear."
Mr Budi said the government was committed to finding the remaining passengers.
"The government is committed, first, to doing everything in our power to find the missing victims, and second, to making improvements by reforming regulations," he said on Wednesday.
Mr Syaugi said that with Lake Toba's status as one of the government's priority destinations, the government would also work towards improving safety, even if it requires building new ships.
"We should be consistent in following the prevailing regulation... If we follow it, (accidents) will not happen," he said.
The prevailing regulation stipulates that vessels should undergo a worthiness test annually and obtain documents such as a passenger manifest and SIB, as well as provide a sufficient number of life jackets.
The government has also held a meeting with all vessel operators in the Lake Toba area to disseminate safety requirement information, and commit to providing 5,000 life jackets for the vessels.
Mr Budi said the ministry would also spend 75 billion rupiah (S$7.2 million) on improving each of the five docks in Lake Toba.
Meanwhile, Transportation Ministry director-general Budi Setiyadi said there may be charges brought against either the vessel captain and owner or the officer in charge if any indication of negligence was found.
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK