Distraught relatives denounced Indonesia’s government for not enforcing basic safety measures on passenger boats and pleaded Wednesday for a bigger search effort for more than 190 people presumed drowned after a ferry sank on a picturesque Sumatran lake this week.
The wooden vessel, overcrowded with passengers as well as dozens of motorbikes, didn’t have a manifest, and disaster officials have several times increased the number of people reported to have been on board as family members who rushed to Lake Toba in northern Sumatra provided information.
The boat was five times over its passenger capacity of 43 and equipped with only 45 life jackets, Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi and National Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi said at a news conference. The latest information is that 192 people are missing, Syaugi said.
Only 18 survivors have been found — in bad weather within hours of the sinking Monday evening, which, according to Syaugi, occurred in waters at least 984 feet deep but less than a third of a mile from an island that’s popular with visitors.
It’s possible many of the victims were still inside the sunken ferry, said North Sumatra province police chief Paulus Waterpauw.
“Many survivors told authorities that less than half of them had jumped into the water before the boat sank,” he told the Associated Press.
Suwarni, whose 20-year-old son was on the ferry with his girlfriend, criticized the search-and-rescue operation as slow and insufficient.
“Millions of questions keep me from sleeping,” she said, between desperate sobs.
“What kind of government is this that can’t protect their own people from unnecessary accidents? And after the accident they’re not able to find the victims,” said Suwarni, who uses only one name. “I beg help to everyone to quickly find my son and his girlfriend, even if [it’s ] their remains. Please find my son — return him to me.”
Several dozen divers were searching at depths of up to 165 feet, and an underwater drone was deployed to 656 feet below the surface, Syaugi said. More sophisticated underwater search methods require large ships that aren’t available on the lake, he said.
The 442-square-mile Lake Toba, formed out of an ancient supervolcano, is a popular sightseeing destination on the island of Sumatra and one of 10 stunning natural attractions in Indonesia that the government aims to develop as magnets for international tourists.
The search involving 350 personnel and at least half a dozen boats has turned up items of clothing, bags and traces of oil from the ferry but just several victims.
Syaugi said four deaths were confirmed after three more bodies were found Wednesday within three miles of where the ferry sank.
He defended the search effort, which could continue for 10 more days, by saying that the agency, police, military and other personnel have been working “all out” and nonstop.
Survivor Juwita Sumbayak, from Medan, said that she had crossed the lake many times on the same boat but that on Monday it was terribly overcrowded because of holidays for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In an interview, the distraught mother wept uncontrollably and called out the names of her husband and children, who she believes drowned inside the boat.
She said that about 20 minutes into the journey, strong high waves caused the ferry to list to the right and take on water, sparking a panic among passengers. Then it was smacked hard by more waves and an empty, small wooden boat. The ferry seemed to shake, Sumbayak said, then suddenly capsized.
“Many passengers without a life jacket jumped into the deep lake, but others drowned with the boat,” she said. “I jumped, I cried with fear.” She saw dozens of people in the water “but nobody can help.”
Another survivor, Riko Saputra, said the motorcycles packed on one side of the boat contributed to its listing. He said he was in the water for about an hour before being rescued and believed he survived only by holding onto a helmet that provided some flotation.
Cellphone video released earlier in the week by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency showed the crew of another ferry attempting to rescue people struggling in the water shortly after the sinking but being hampered by bad weather and rough waves.
The disaster has cast a pall over the holidays marking the end of Ramadan, when tens of millions of Indonesians return to their hometowns.
Ferry tragedies are common in Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with weak enforcement of safety regulations often to blame.
Sumadi, the transportation minister, said after the disaster that all 40 commercial boat operators on Lake Toba are being audited by the government and suspended from sailing until they show compliance with safety standards.
A grief-stricken Muhaimin, 61, said he had lost eight family members, including two sons, their wives and children.
“My sons, my daughters-in-law and my grandchildren have been the victims of greedy businessmen who just want to take advantage of the holiday season without thinking of people’s safety,” he said. “It would not happen if they follow the rules. But they made money over our misery.”