An airplane from Australia, three helicopters and eight ships scoured the area after the MV Rabaul Queen went down while traveling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to the coastal city of Lae on the main island, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.
Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted police in Kimbe as saying that most of the passengers were students and trainee teachers.
An official at the scene said the ferry capsized in rough seas and sank four hours later, Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier newspaper reported.
National Weather Service chief Sam Maiha said shipping agencies had been warned to keep ships moored this week because of strong winds, the newspaper said.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the cause of the accident was unknown, but acknowledged that safety in the shipping industry was lax.
“We need to bring some safety measures back into this industry,” O’Neill told reporters.
He said more than 300 people were aboard the ship, although the precise number had not been confirmed.
An Australian search and rescue airplane based in the northern city of Cairns reached the scene by afternoon and two other Australian airplanes were on their way.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Carly Lusk said the crew of the first plane threw several life rafts to survivors in the water. She said 238 survivors had been recovered by late in the day.
She said 350 people were believed to be on board the ferry, but Papua New Guinea’s National Maritime Safety Authority said the figure was likely lower.
“I cannot confirm or deny the 350 missing number. It is hearsay,” said Captain Nurur Rahman, the authority’s rescue coordinator. “I have not seen the manifest as yet, but it is likely around 300.”
Rahman said the search would likely be suspended until dawn Friday due to rough weather.
He said there had been no reports of bodies being found and that he remained hopeful of finding more survivors in the tropical waters.
“I’m always hopeful,” he said. “People have survived up to two days in these waters.”
Most of the survivors were uninjured, although one had a dislocated shoulder, he said.
Ship operator Star Ships could not immediately be contacted for comment.
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