Tanjung Balai, Riau Islands. Passengers screamed in panic, while others fainted as an overloaded ferry rocked violently in heavy seas and sank off Karimun Island, survivors recalled on Monday.
They described scores of undocumented passengers cramming the decks ahead of the disaster on Sunday morning in the Malacca Strait, rejecting the captain’s claims that the ferry went down because of bad weather.
High school teacher Amir Azli, 56, described scenes of pandemonium on board the Dumai Express as water started to pour through cracks in its hull.
“The skies were clear and the seas were calm when we set sail but the weather turned bad on the way. There was a heavy downpour and huge waves, and the ferry was rocking from side to side so vigorously,” he said.
“Children were wailing and women, men, old people all panicked. Many people were crying and vomiting. Some people were so seasick they fainted. We were all so scared and stressed.”
His account confirms the captain’s claims that the vessel had sailed into an unexpected storm shortly after leaving Batam Island bound for Sumatra on Sunday, but the teacher still blamed overcrowding for many of the 27 deaths.
“The ferry was overloaded. My estimate is there were more than 350 people on the boat,” he said as he recovered in Tanjung Balai on Karimun Island.
The local police chief on Karimun has told reporters as many as 400 people might have been packed on to the 147-ton craft, well over its capacity of 273 passengers and crew.
Captain Johan Napitupulu said he had no warning he was sailing into the storm when he left Batam on Sunday.
“The weather was fine when we left Batam port. There was no sign of rain and we also didn’t get any warning from anybody saying the weather could turn bad at sea,” he said.
“About half an hour later the weather suddenly turned really, really bad. The waves were higher than two meters, the winds and currents were strong.”
The captain denied the vessel was overloaded or unfit to sail, and said the crew had done all it could to arrange lifeboats and life jackets for the terrified passengers.
“The waves could have struck the front part of the ferry and caused it to crack, and water had got in. The ferry was sinking fast, front first. Within 27 minutes it was totally submerged,” he said.
“We told the passengers to put on life jackets and we launched four light craft, each with a capacity of 65 people. There was panic, everyone was screaming.”
Some male passengers, Johan added, were told to swim until help arrived.
Maritime officials said there were “indications” of overcrowding and that the accident was being investigated.
“I saw at least 50 people without tickets sitting on the top deck of the ferry. If they had tickets, they should have been in the ferry and not sitting outside,” said Azli, who made it on to one of the vessel’s four lifeboats, each able to carry 65 people.
Many of the passengers were on their way to visit families for a Muslim holiday, and were carrying “huge suitcases,” he said.
“It wasn’t just the bad weather. The ferry was overloaded so of course I’m angry that the ferry operator broke the safety rules and people had to die because of that,” Azli said.
“The safety equipment on the ferry also wasn’t up to standard. The lifeboat I was on leaked and water was getting in as we waited for help. All of us had to soak the water with our clothes and wring the water out as we waited.”
He said there was also a scuffle between the crew and passengers who were angry that life jackets and boats were not being prepared fast enough.
Another survivor, 25-year-old factory worker Zulfitri, also said she suspected the ferry had too many passengers. “The ferry was overcrowded with people and things. On the first floor there were people standing because they had no seats,” she said.
Zulfitri said the crew had failed to sound the alarm to abandon ship until it was too late. “They didn’t tell us there was a problem but only asked us to stay calm. We only realized we were in trouble when we saw the ferry sinking and that’s when we demanded life jackets,” she said.
“My older sister and I managed to put on life jackets and jumped out. We were floating in the water for about four hours before help came. I couldn’t swim and was swallowing so much sea water. I just kept praying.”