A damning report has revealed a litany of failures that contributed to a ferry disaster in Kiribati last year which killed 95 people, including 23 primary and high school students returning to class.
- There were only seven survivors, from a total of 102 people on board
- The ferry broke apart at sea, and was only reported missing eight days later
- The report found most victims died of starvation, dehydration or hypothermia
An investigation by a commission of inquiry found the 18-metre wooden catamaran MV Butiraoi was unseaworthy, overloaded and should not have been carrying any passengers when it left the island of Nonouti on the 240-kilometre journey to the capital Tarawa in January 2018.
Facing mounting pressure to investigate the ferry disaster, which saw the deaths of 84 passengers and 11 crew from a total of 102 onboard, the Kiribati Government established the commission of inquiry to determine what went wrong.
After a long wait, the report was released last Thursday, but locals could only view the full report under extremely strict conditions.
Locals said they had to read the hard copy under close supervision and in an allocated time at the National Library or office of the president, but no photos, photocopies or notes were allowed to be taken.
And online, only the title page and contents page of the report were published on the government website, and what was available included no details about the findings or what may have caused the disaster.
‘Drunken crew’ had multiple groundings
The report said the master and crew’s alcohol use gave them «the feeling of grandeur». (Commission of Inquiry)
The full report was only published on the government website earlier today, focusing on the three major issues which contributed to the accident.
The investigation found the Butiraoi ran aground twice in Nonouti before departure to Tarawa on January 18, although the extent of the damage could not be determined.
And it was not the first time the Butiraoi was grounded — a similar incident happened in a previous voyage, and the master reportedly took the risk of grounding while steering the boat through uncharted waters to Taboiaki village in Kiribati.
The investigation also found the use of alcohol by the master and crew during work hours gave «the drunken crew the feeling of grandeur and power to make decisions alone».
«It was obvious the master of MV Butiraoi was reckless and inconsiderate of the ship, crew and passengers,» the report said.
«Interestingly, the operator of MV Butiraoi continued to allow that master to man his ship despite his records of previous groundings of his ship under his command.
«The repeated grounds, whether at Nonouti or at other places, strongly indicated that [the vessel’s] overall structure has seriously been compromised.»
The excess weight on the ferry — which was overloaded with passengers and cargo — placed more pressure on the already damaged structure.
Meanwhile, the Butiraoi’s radio licence, which forms an integral part of its seaworthiness, expired on January 1, 2018.
In addition, the investigation found «the rough weather and heavy seas that the MV Butiraoi went through, contributed greatly to the ship breaking apart.»
Most victims died from hunger, dehydration
Only seven people, including two crew members, survived the disaster (Supplied: NZ Defence Force)
The report also painted a harrowing picture of the moments before the ferry started breaking apart after travelling for about 30 minutes on the open sea.
«The main structural cross-beams that held the twin hulls near the fore part of the vessel began to fail,» the report said.
«About two hours later the twin hulls began to separate and the superstructure that formed the upper cabin areas and wheelhouse collapsed inwards.
«The Butiraoi broke apart, and eventually sank.»
The passengers helped the crew launch the two 25-person life rafts and the vessel’s two aluminium workboats, but one of the life rafts was punctured on the wreckage, the report said.
«When the people in the water climbed onto and crowded the second life raft, the floor of the raft failed, leaving the inflated tubes for people to hang on to,» it said.
The master failed to send a distress message, delaying rescue attempts by more than a week. (Supplied: NZ Air Force)
«It was estimated that about 30 people had managed to put on lifejackets before the vessel broke apart.
«About 30 people, mostly women and children, were helped onto each aluminium workboat with several men hanging onto the sides, plus another 30, mostly men, in the life raft.»
On the third day of drifting, one of the workboats capsized and sunk, and while the second workboat remained afloat, the survivors began to perish with barely any food and water.
Because the master failed to report to the Marine Guard before departure, and was not able to send a distress message before the ferry broke apart, the Butiraoi was not reported missing until January 26 — eight days after it left Nonouti Island.
A search-and-rescue team found and rescued only seven survivors on January 28.
The report found most, if not all, of the victims had died from hunger, dehydration and hypothermia, while one woman died while giving birth.
The commission recommended the current Maritime Act 2017 be strengthened for «strict compliance» — but said the regulations needed under the act were yet to be drafted or implemented.
Opposition MP England Iuta told the ABC it would take some time for the report’s contents to filter out into the community, because many locals did not speak English.
He said a lot of people blamed the Government and maritime authorities for the tragedy because they did not prevent the ferry from carrying passengers.
«Who else should we blame?'» he asked.
«They were not at the port when the vessel departed.»
When the report was privately released last week, Kiribati praised the investigation’s release as a «milestone» for the Government in order to «promote transparency» and «respond to the need of the people».
The ABC reached out to the Kiribati Government today following the public release of the document, but it did not reply by the time of publication.