Updated at 4:52 p.m. ET on 2015-12-20
Indonesian rescue teams expected to resume their search on Monday for 77 people still missing at sea, after their ferry ran into bad conditions, took on water and sank near Sulawesi island on Saturday night, officials said.
As of late Sunday afternoon (local time), rescuers had pulled 39 people out of the water alive, but the official death toll stood at three. By day’s end, search teams had recovered the bodies of two children and a woman.
Bad weather, rough conditions and poor visibility in Bone Bay prevented rescuers from carrying on Sunday night with the search for more survivors, according to officials.
The New Marina, a fiberglass boat, was carrying 109 passengers and 10 crew members as crossed the bay on Saturday afternoon, from Kolaka, in Southeast Sulawesi province to Siwa, in South Sulawesi province. Nineteen children, including 14 babies, were on board.
“Because the currents are so strong toward the waters of north Kolaka, we are focusing on north Kolaka, searching it from the sea to the coast, as the victims could have drifted toward the coast,” Poki Azikin, who heads the Makassar office of the National Search and Rescue Agency, told BenarNews.
The boat sank 22.5 km (24 miles) off the coast of Wajo district in South Sulawesi, officials said.
“From 42 people evacuated, three of them were dead,” Adjunct Commissioner M. Guntur, who serves as the chief of police in Wajo, told BenarNews.
The 39 survivors were rushed to area hospitals.
The search operation, Poki said, consisted of military and police units, government agencies and members of the community.
"We also involve fishermen in this search operation. We sent two large ships, six rubber boats and a helicopter to facilitate the search at the site," Poki said.
In fact, before dawn broke on Sunday, a local fisherman rescued four people from the boat who were lost at sea, including a boy.
Fisherman Amiruddin told reporters that he heard a woman crying for help at around 2 a.m. while he was fishing on the bay.
“I went to where the voice came from and I saw a woman laying on her back in her safety float with a little boy on the top of her. I directly helped them and took them to my boat,” Amiruddin said.
Then he spotted two more survivors and pulled them into his boat. He said all four looked weak, so he gave them some food.
“Their condition is very weak. They have been evacuated to a hospital in Siwa to be treated. Hopefully they are fine,” Guntur, the police chief for Wajo, told BenarNews earlier on Sunday, referring to the one group of four survivors.
It remained unclear whether mechanical failure played a role in the accident. Late Saturday, local media reports conflicted as to whether the boat had sunk or was adrift at sea after its engine broke down, as the vessel encountered strong winds and high waves.
The ferry was scheduled to arrive at Siwa at 3 p.m. Saturday (local time). The boat reportedly sent out a distress signal before radio contact with it was lost at around 2:30 p.m., Ridwan, a port official in Palopo, South Sulawesi, told BenarNews.
After departing from Kolaka, the captain informed the harbor master about the bad weather and rough waters, said Andi Salahatu Lani, head of the port authority in Bangsalee.
After radio contact was lost, the port authority launched an operation to reach the stranded boat, but bad conditions hampered the effort, and the ferry sank around 9:30 p.m., officials said.
"The ship’s captain and the crew had contacted us in Siwa. They requested us to send another ship to evacuate the passengers because the waves were reaching a height of 6 meters [19.6 feet], "Andi told BenarNews.
String of accidents
Saturday’s sinking of the ferry off Sulawesi was at least the third maritime accident reported since mid-November in or near Indonesian waters.
Just two days earlier, six Philippine crew members of the Danish cargo ship Thorco Cloud were declared missing after it collided with a chemical tanker, the Stolt Commitment, approximately 13 km (8 miles) off Batam island in western Indonesian, the Associated Press reported.
On Nov. 16, more than 100 passengers were evacuated safely or rescued when the ship Wihan Sejahtera sand in Lamong Bay, in Surabaya, according to AFP.
And in early September, 64 people drowned when a boat full of Indonesian workers bound from Malaysia to Aceh province, on Sumatra, sank off the Malaysian coast.