At least 31 people were killed and dozens feared missing after a ferry sank off Indonesia's Sulawesi island in the latest transport accident to hit the nation, officials said yesterday.
Residents near the town of Bau Bau on southeast Sulawesi heard survivors screaming for help after the Acita 03 capsized at about 9pm on Thursday, ElShinta radio reported.
The 22m-long boat sank several kilometers from shore when passengers clambered to the roof seeking a stronger cell signal to make mobile phone calls, transport ministry official Djoni Algamar said.
"The ship lost its balance and capsized," he said.
Though only 60 names had been on the ship's manifest, Indonesian ferries frequently carry far more passengers than the number officially registered.
ElShinta's reporter said 151 people were believed to be on board, while Bau Bau Mayor Amirul Tamim told the radio station that 188 people were on the ferry and several dozen thought to be missing.
Thirty bodies were in the morgue at Bau Bau general hospital and 19 survivors were being treated for shock, officials said.
One body remained stuck in the boat because the vessel's fuel drums had polluted the area, making it hard to get inside, said Kasman, head of the hospital's emergency department.
A hospitalized survivor, Safruddin, told ElShinta that he had been traveling from his home village to work on Sulawesi after the one-week holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"I thought I would die. I managed to get out of the boat ... I held on to two pieces of foam and then I passed out. I woke up at the port and I threw up," he said, adding that he did not know how he got to port.
Safruddin said his two-year-old child and wife survived by clinging to wooden planks, and fishermen later rescued them.
Search and rescue team chief Roki Asikin told ElShinta that 125 people had been rescued. The search area has been widened and more ships mobilized to look for the missing, Algamar said.
A local policeman, Idwar said the vessel had been heading from Tomea island to Bau Bau on Buton island, around 1,500km northeast of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.
Tomea belongs to the Wakatobi group of islands, which is home to some of Indonesia's top dive sites and is popular with international tourists.
Millions of people are returning home over the next few days across Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, after the end of Ramadan.
Sea links are crucial in Indonesia, an archipelago nation of some 17,500 islands, but safety standards are frequently low or not enforced.