The search effort for more than 190 people presumed drowned after a tourist ferry sank on a crater lake in Indonesia earlier this week has been extended a further four days, amid growing anger over the government’s failure to prevent the tragedy.
The boat, which was believed to be more than three times its passenger capacity, sank on Monday after encountering high-waves while crossing Lake Toba, on the Indonesian province of North Sumatra. Only 18 survivors have been found from an estimated 213 on board, all within several hours of the accident.
Despite a coordinated effort by several Indonesian government agencies, efforts to locate the sunken vessel have so far been hampered by bad weather and poor visibility. Authorities have said the current search will continue until Sunday, seven days after the accident.
On Wednesday evening, a fight broke out when a small group of distraught relatives attempted to take control of a government rescue boat on the shores of Lake Toba, in an effort to speed up the search.
The group, who did not succeed, accused the authorities of wasting time and not searching properly.
One relative who would only give her name as Vera said, “We don’t want to speak out of turn but why haven’t they found more people by now? We think it’s poor time management at this point and we need to get our families back.”
Responding to the disaster Wednesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo called on emergency services to find the missing victims “as soon as possible.”
“This incident is a lesson for all of us to always be careful, for all boat owners, obey the regulations, prioritize passengers safety and follow instructions from the meteorological agency for any forecast or potential bad weather,” said Widodo in a statement.
The exact cause of the accident is unknown, with authorities pointing to both bad weather and overloading as potential factors.
However, Chief of Police for Simalungun Regency, Liberty Pandjaitan, told CNN Tuesday that investigators believe “human error” was also involved.
“The boat captain was found alive and has been taken into custody,” said Pandjaitan, who said police would not release details of the case publicly for fears of reprisals against his family.
The Indonesian emergency services believe most of the bodies of the victims are still trapped inside the two-tier ferry at the bottom of the lake, which is up to 505 meters (1,657 feet) deep in places.
The top deck of the two tier wooden boat had a metal cage surrounding the seating area to stop thieves entering at night, which would also have made it impossible for passengers to escape, even if they had broken the windows.
Helicopters which assisted in the initial search for survivors were grounded Wednesday as the operation shifted focus.
“We now consider this a recovery effort rather than a search and rescue due to the amount of time that has elapsed since the sinking,” Indonesian National Board for Disaster official, Wanda Ketaren, told CNN.
’350 people working here’
Despite the promise to extend the search until Sunday, little progress has been made in locating the boat, which authorities believe is at the bottom of the lake.
Efforts have so far focused on an oil slick, believed to be site of the sinking, with a team of divers dispatched to the area.
Brigadier General Bambang Suryo Aji who is helping to coordinate the operation said, “If we find the boat we will then take steps to decide how best to bring it to the surface. We do not have that information yet.”
To date, no request has been made for special equipment from abroad.
“We are not asking for more personnel to come to the scene. We already have 350 people working here which we think is enough,” said Brig. Gen. Aji.
Lake Toba is a popular sightseeing destination in North Sumatra, thanks to its status as the world’s largest crater lake which spans some 1,130 square kilometers (440 square miles).
The Indonesian government recently declared the area one of the “10 New Balis,” a new tourism growth strategy – and the brainchild of Indonesian president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo – designed to lure foreign visitors to other parts of the country.
The strategy also included the opening of Silangit International Airport, an hour’s drive from Lake Toba, in October 2017.
Ferries such as the one that sank Monday remain a popular and necessary mode of transport for tourists visiting the lake.
Authorities have so far rejected claims that travel in the region is unsafe, or that the accident would prove damaging to the region’s fledgling tourist industry.
“This was an isolated incident due to bad weather and overcrowding. We are taking steps to ensure it will never happen again,” said Brig. Gen. Aji.
The boat had a limited number of life-jackets and was overloaded with both passengers and cargo.
“We need to balance the logistics of bringing the boat to the surface with the wishes of the families, but I have heard no reports that they are not satisfied with our response to the incident. The teams are doing their best,” said Brig. Gen. Aji.