Rescuers pulled more than 200 survivors from the ocean on Thursday (February 2) as the search for more passengers from a packed ferry that sank off the coast of Papua New Guinea was set to extend into Friday, rescue officials said.
The fate of scores of others aboard the ferry, the MV Rabaul Queen, was unknown.
Rescue agencies estimated that the MV Rabaul Queen had been carrying 300 to 350 people when it sank early Thursday about 10 miles off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. Nearby commercial ships rescued 238 people from the sea, said Capt. Nurur Rahman, the rescue coordinator for Papua New Guinea's National Maritime Safety Authority.
The ferry sank between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. local time, Captain Rahman said, as it was traveling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to the town of Lae on the main island. The ferry sent a distress signal that was received in Australia and relayed to the maritime authority in Papua New Guinea.
The MV Rabaul Queen has a capacity of 300 passengers, but Captain Rahman said he did not know how many were aboard. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in its online updates that as many as 350 people were believed to be aboard the ferry.
The cause of the accident was not known, Captain Rahman said.
"Right now, we're making all efforts to fast-track rescue operations while the sun is still up," he said.
Whether rescue operations would continue through the night remained unclear. Captain Rahman said the search would likely be suspended until dawn Friday because of rough weather, The Associated Press reported. But the Australian maritime agency said Thursday night that search ships "remained in the area."
Strong northwesterly winds and sea swells of up to 5 meters, or about 16 feet, were reported by ships at the scene of the sinking, the Australian maritime agency said.
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill of Papua New Guinea said the authorities would investigate the cause of the sinking, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, whose country coordinates maritime rescue operations with Papua New Guinea, warned of a heavy loss of life. Speaking to reporters in Melbourne, Ms. Gillard described the sinking as a "major tragedy." Australia sent an airplane to join at least six ships and three helicopters Papua New Guinea had deployed to find survivors.
"Given the likely very high loss of life here, I think when this news comes to the attention of Australians around the country they will be thinking about the people of P.N.G. as they respond to this tragedy," Ms. Gillard said, The A.P. reported.
Ferries are commonly used for travel around the archipelago nation of seven million people. While rich in natural resources, Papua New Guinea remains relatively poor, beset by the high cost of developing infrastructure and continuing political instability.
Papua New Guinea has a history of political violence, including a decade-long civil war involving the mineral-rich island of Bougainville. Last month an attempted coup against Mr. O'Neill failed.
Source: New York Times