By HELEN TARAWA
PATRICK Ifuda was the first local I identified upon arriving in Tufi last month for the Tufi Tapa Tattoo Cultural Festival.
Immediately, I tried to recall what connection Patrick had with a story I heard many years ago about an accident at sea during which a family had lost their mother, a brother and a nephew.
Patrick and I relate to each other as family though we come from two different areas in Northern. Our dads were both head teachers in various schools in the province so we knew each other well.
Having met him after so many years I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to get to hear his side of the story of what really happened to members of his family.
He was a member of the organising committee on the ground in Tufi and was there to meet the team from Port Moresby.
My job was made easier because he is from Baga Village which was where our media team was accommodated at the Saidado Guest House.
Patrick did not have the time for an interview until our final night.
He told the story of how his twin brother David, his mum Anastasia and his nephew Billy Reginald mysteriously went missing at sea in 1997 about 22 years ago and had not been found to this day.
Family goes for holidays
Patrick’s dad, late Bartameaus was the head teacher at Ajoa Primary School in Tufi at that time and since it was a holiday period, he decided to take his family to town in Popondetta.
Transportation from Tufi to Popondetta is either by dinghy or plane.
Patrick decided to stay home and look after their house whilst his parents and their grandson travelled by dinghy to Popondetta. It takes about four hours from Tufi to Oro Bay.
The Ifuda family travelled to Oro Bay where they boarded the dinghy late in the evening about 5.30pm
Patrick’s twin brother David had joined his parents in Popondetta for the return trip. He had travelled ahead to do shopping for his young family.
The operator of the dinghy who had survived the accident decided to make the trip to Tufi in the evening.
They left Oro Bay at about 5pm, the weather was a bit chilly, there were swells and it was bit choppy.
The dinghy was overloaded with cargo and passengers which included the four Ifudas, a pregnant woman and her husband, another four men, the skipper and his crew. There were 12 persons on board in all.
On top of that was the cargo which included roofing iron sheets and other materials for the school.
For safety reasons it was always advisable to travel in daylight. However, the operator and the crew decided to take the trip knowing that the boat was loaded with cargo and passengers.
They were about an hour out of Oro Bay that the mysterious tragic accident happened.
According to information that the Ifuda family received a dinghy had allegedly trailed them.
Mysteriously something happened to their dinghy and it capsized and all the cargo and passengers were thrown overboard.
Because it was dark nobody knew exactly what happened at that time to cause their dinghy to sink.
The passengers who were near the sunken dinghy decided to keep afloat as they grabbed hold of whatever they could find.
While in the water in total darkness, David did a head count and realised that his mum and nephew were not part of the group that were keeping afloat and while looking for them he also vanished.
According to Patrick’s dad, there was a dinghy that came at high speed behind them and caused high waves which sank their dinghy as it was overloaded.
The passengers stayed floating in the water for the almost 24 hours before they were rescued.
Unfortunately when help finally came about 4pm the next day the pregnant woman was found dead and the other passengers remained safe.
It is understood that the young woman who was about seven months pregnant drowned after taking in sea water mixed with fuel emptied from containers that were used as floaters.
She had died but no one knew until they were able to overturn the dinghy that they noticed her lifeless body.
So they put the woman into the dinghy and even if there was water in it they had to keep her body safe. They all got into the dinghy and stayed together until they were rescued.
They realised that five people out of the 12 had disappeared; the three Ifuda family members and two other persons including the boat crew.
A fisherman spotted the sunken dinghy floating and rescued them.
They were taken to Katereda Health Centre for checks and the incident was reported to police. The survivors were later taken up to Popondetta Hospital.
The case was reported to the provincial disaster office and a search party was immediately dispatched.
The search went on for almost a month and it was later called off because there were no traces of any human being. They could only find their belongings some of which had floated down as far as Killerton.
Because it was a police matter these belongings were kept as evidence. The incident became the talk of the whole province as rumours spread about the disappearance of the people.
There were claims that the missing people were kidnapped and taken away in another dinghy in an act of piracy.
Police carried out investigations checking out various locations as per the reports but without success.
Patrick said: “We spent money to ensure that there were leads to this case. Even family members made every effort to assist with funding and logistics and those who had information about the missing people tried to help but there was no lead.
“My brother David was a very fierce man, he was like the David in the Bible and he was very strong and never backed off in any situation and had the mind power to tackle any problem.
“As twin brother I knew my brother well. He was a real man and he would do anything to ensure to get out of such accidents but that time he lost his life.
“I felt like my brother let me down when he couldn’t rescue himself, our mother and nephew.
“He didn’t come out and be with us to show his courage that he was an overcomer. That was the greatest mystery that we as family members do not understand to this day.
“We still dream and wonder how this tragedy happened. It couldn’t happen to a person like him.
“Our mother was a loving mum. Our parents lived and worked with the community and my mum was no harm to anyone so why was she taken away.
“She was a caring mum who loved us and felt the pain of being a mother and she looked after us well.
“When she was taken away tragically we were traumatised and we have never recovered from this agony,” Patrick said.
His dad was hospitalised for some time and recovered. He was given time off from teaching that year because he was traumatised by the accident.
The operator of the dinghy survived but the crew member was one of the five who disappeared without a trace.
However according to intelligence the crew member who was reported missing was seen around some years later and he is believed to be alive and in hiding.
When the survivors were rescued and admitted to the Popondetta Hospital, police were keeping a watch over the operator but he was believed to have escaped and has never given any evidence.
Information collected by the Criminal Investigation Division was inadequate as the skipper of the boat never gave evidence.
A family member who wishes to remain anonymous said he was one of the first to use his dingy for the search.
“My dingy was the first to go. We collected the bags that were swept away by the Musa River current but we could not find any person.
“We assumed that they were picked up and kept as hostages but there was no hard evidence to confirm the claims,” he said.
Patrick said: “Every year we tried to work towards finding a lead on the accident with our family members but nothing has transpired to this day.
“It’s still a mystery for our family, no one knows exactly what really happened.
“They were not out at open sea so the current couldn’t have swept them away and every effort to search for them was in vain.
“There were rumours about the missing people being kept in certain locations which led us to go from one place to another but it was like chasing our tails without much luck.
“Dad went into a time of trauma and left work but after a year he went back into teaching.
“I realised that my dad did not have mum around to support him so I married my wife Susie of West Sepik and Northern parentage and returned home to Baga to support him after he retired.
“He came home to Baga but he was unsettled so he had been moving around visiting all my siblings until last year when he passed on in August.
“My dad waited for mum but she was never found to this day. I never had the opportunity to farewell my dad so that’s the only regret I have.
“Dad left with that unsolved mystery that he never saw mum, David and our nephew,” Patrick said.
Twenty-two years later and the Ifuda family are still looking for answers to this mysterious accident that took the lives of their loved ones.
This and many other similar untold stories haunt families who commute using boats in the maritime provinces where little is known about such cases.