The National, Wednesday 15th Febuary 2012
AUTHORITIES in Rabaul town and former employees with Rabaul Shipping say they will fully support the preliminary investigations set up by the national government to probe the operations of the company in the wake of the sinking of the mv Rabaul Queen on Feb 2.
The ferry sank off the coast of Finschhafen, Morobe, with more than 350 passengers and crew on board.
Two hundred and thirty-seven survived the sinking and just six bodies of the more than 100 people still missing have been recovered.
In interviews with The National, the former employees said the company had overloaded its ferries and used two manifests during peak periods.
They said they were aware the company had breached maritime safety regulations and were willing to assist the investigation team currently in Rabaul, with more information on encounters they have had with company owner, Peter Sharp, either as travelling passengers of his Queen ships or as former employees of Rabaul Shipping.
Former employee Georgina ToWaluta said Rabaul Shipping had been a “very good shipping company during its early days just before and after the volcanic eruptions”.
But in the recent past, the company’s services had deteriorated.
When she was a ticketing officer, the company was very strict with the number of passengers on trips and would ensure the maximum carrying capacity was adhered to and persons found without names on the manifest during checks done before trips were ordered off.
But in recent trips she made on the company’s ferries, it appeared this practice was no longer observed.
During peak periods, people were crammed on board and the unlucky ones had to stand all the way to their respective destinations.
ToWaluta’s claim was supported by two other former employees who declined to be named.
One had a been a ticketing officer for the company for 10 years, the other in the technical section maintaining ships for 15 years.
Both said it was normal practice for the company’s ticketing officers to make up two different manifests of travelling passengers on their ferries during peak periods.
The employees who did not want to be named said that “when ticketing officers register passengers up until the total carrying capacity of the queen ships, a separate manifest is (then) compiled for the rest of the passengers who have also bought tickets for the voyages.”
The former ticketing officer said she had advised East New Britain disaster counselling officials to demand the ticket books and tallies taken at Bougainville, Rabaul and Kimbe before mv Rabaul Queen departed for its final destination, Lae.She explained that the manifests should not be relied on as the ticket books and tallies will detail the total number of passengers along the route although most infants would not be included.
She said during peak periods, a lot of passengers’ names were not recorded as they bought tickets either at the gates or on the ships.
She added that during trips, crew members often advised mothers and children to stay at the third and fourth decks which they considered the most comfortable areas of the ship, away from the rain, wind and sun.
She felt it was probable that a lot of mothers and children could have been trapped in the lower decks and perished when the ship sank.
Officers of the Rabaul urban local level government said the company had on numerous occasions denied entry to government officers and Rabaul police to perform drug surveillance and searches in the wharf area.
Sharp would threaten court action on anyone insisting on entering his company area or staff compound.
Lane Konama, a subsistence farmer from Goroka but now a resident in the Vunapalading area in East New Britain had a daughter who survived the sea tragedy.
Konama’s daughter was on her way to do her second year at the University of Goroka.
Konama who is a frequent traveller on Rabaul Shipping ships said that on one or two of his trips, he had to stand from Kimbe to Lae as there was no sitting space on board the ship.
He also questioned whether the National Maritime Safety Authority conducted regular checks on Rabaul Shipping vessels.
However, one of the company’s shipping managers, John Vaika, told The National that there was nothing wrong with the company and it had operated “within the books”.
Vaika emphasised that he saw nothing wrong with the operations of Rabaul Shipping and was glad to be associated with the company.