Pacific News Minute: Official Report On Kiribati Ferry Disaster Finally Released

Oct 31, 2019

Earlier this month, the government of Kiribati finally released a long delayed report on the country’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of an overloaded ferry that cost the lives of 95 people.

On the morning of January 18th, 2018, a 55 foot catamaran named Butiraoi set off from the tiny island of Nanuti on what was supposed to be a two day voyage to the capital, Tarawa.

The vessel was prohibited from carrying passengers, but there were 89 aboard – including students on their way back to school after the Christmas break. The ship was overloaded with cargo and the captain ignored warnings of bad weather.

After just 30 minutes, the cross beam between the ships’ two hulls broke apart, but the captain sailed on. Three hours later, Butiraoi collapsed in on itself and sank. There were only 30 life vests for 89 passengers and 13 crew.  Two inflatable life rafts both punctured, which left just two aluminum dinghies, one of which capsized.

The ferry did not have an emergency locator beacon and the captain had turned off the generator that powered the radio. No one noticed that the ferry was missing for seven days, by which time some of the survivors in the remaining aluminum boat had died of thirst and exposure. Finally, a maritime search plane from New Zealand spotted the drifting boat.

Seven people were rescued.

The report put much of the blame on the captain and crew who lacked proper credentials and were drinking on the job. Blame also goes to the government for failure to enforce regulations. While a police inquiry continues, no one has been held accountable. Kiribati is supposed to receive new ferry boats from China as part of its reward for switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Bejing.