JAKARTA • Indonesia yesterday said it was calling off a two-week operation to retrieve the bodies of nearly 200 passengers thought to have drowned in one of the world's deepest volcanic lakes.
The overcrowded wooden ferry capsized during a storm on June 18 in Lake Toba, which is around 450m deep, as travellers were heading home after the Eid holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting season.
Eighteen passengers survived, three were confirmed dead and nearly 200 are missing. Hundreds of people - relatives and friends of the victims - have kept a vigil by the shore as they waited for news about their loved ones.
The operation to find the ferry and retrieve the victims has faced numerous technical and logistical hurdles - dangerous currents and cold, murky water far deeper than any diver can go - in a lake that has never been completely surveyed.
Video footage taken last week using a remotely operated underwater vehicle showed human remains, motorcycles and ropes from the ferry at a depth of 450m.
Rescue spokesman Muhammad Yusuf Latif confirmed yesterday that the search operation would end, adding that an official statement would likely be made today.
"We've already had face-to-face discussions with the families of the victims (on) the difficulties faced in the field (and) reasons why we won't continue; why we want to end it," Mr Latif said. "They understand why we're stopping."
According to Mr Muhammad Ilyas, head of the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology, the wreckage was found last Saturday, but the remotely operated underwater vehicle used to find it had also become stuck in ropes connected to the ferry.
"We have proven 100 per cent" that the ferry is there, Mr Ilyas said, adding that the submersible was later retrieved but needed to be repaired as its cable had broken.
Rescuers had earlier said they were considering borrowing a heavier vehicle from Singapore to retrieve the victims and the vessel, but that plan was cancelled as it would take more than three weeks and was "high cost", Mr Latif said.
Mr Craig Chesner, a geologist from Eastern Illinois University who conducted a survey of Lake Toba in 2012, said the ferry had sunk "in the deepest part of the entire lake".
According to media reports, a monument will be erected by the government in memory of victims.
Five suspects have been named, including the boat's captain, as well as local port and transportation officials over the sunken ferry.
The traditional wooden boat could have been carrying five times the number of passengers it was built to hold, along with dozens of motorcycles, officials have said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE