Overhaul maritime safety after Lake Toba tragedy: Indonesian President Joko Widodo

A ferry carrying hundreds of people capsized in the 500m-deep Lake Toba has called for an overhaul of water transportation safety standards by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ordered an overhaul of water transportation safety standards in the wake of the accident in Lake Toba, North Sumatra, where a boat believed to be carrying hundreds of people capsized in the 500-metre-deep lake on Monday (June 18) 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, the worst in years, has 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 boat, with the ship 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 that the number of people on board the boat exceeded 200.

As of Wednesday, the authorities said they had only found 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. There is no recorded indication of wrongdoing."

National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) head M. Syaugi said that so far, the deceased victims had been found within 3km to 5km from the indicated location of the accident.

"We are making a concerted effort (to find passengers), even using remote underwater vehicles," he said on Wednesday.

He said the Basarnas team had searched up 50m deep into the world's largest volcanic lake. The team has faced obstacles, such as the weather and the freezing temperature of the water, meaning the dive 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.

The government has set up specialised teams for different purposes, including a team to gather the registration of missing people, a search and rescue team, as well as a team to ascertain the causes of the accident, which involves the National Transportation Safety Commission (KNKT).

Mr Syaugi said that even though this was the responsibility of the regional government, the President had issued an instruction to reform the regulation for the search operation.

He also 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 the safety requirement information, as well as commit to providing 5,000 life jackets for the vessels.

It will also audit all the vessels operating in the area, banning them from operating until they meet the requirements. Two roll-on/roll-off ships are exempt from this ban.

Mr Budi said the ministry would also spend 75 billion rupiah (S$7.2 milion) 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.

"I have consulted with the police about this," he said.

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