Rescue boats picked up dozens of bodies and exhausted survivors yesterday after an Indonesian ferry sank in the Java Sea, as about 400 people remained missing, officials and state news agency Antara said.
Navy ships, fishing vessels and aircraft have scoured a large section of the central Indonesian coastline since the Senopati Nusantara capsized around midnight on Friday after being pounded by heavy waves for 10 hours.
By late yesterday afternoon authorities had found 177 survivors, either clinging to pieces of wood, packed into life rafts or on beaches after swimming ashore, Antara quoted transport department official Soeharto as saying.
At least 66 bodies were also found, said Soeharto, who goes by one name, like many Indonesians. More than 400 people were still missing.
Budi Susilo, who survived by grasping an overturned raft, said he saw three people drown after losing their grip.
"We told them to hold on, but they ran out of energy," he said.
Survivors recounted the horror of the ship's last minutes, when the crew told passengers, many praying or screaming, to don life vests.
They said that the vessel shook violently and veered to one side before being swamped by 5m waves, and that passengers scuffled for life preservers as the lights went out.
"The waves were so high, and the ship's crew told us not to panic," Bekti Riwayati said.
"But we were panicked and the ship went down. It took two hours to sink," Riwayati said.
Witnesses reported seeing lifeboats with more survivors, and said most people had donned life jackets. Indonesia's tropical waters are between 22oC and 29oC, and people have been known to survive days at sea.
"I don't want to speculate on how long people can survive floating on the sea. We only hope they can survive," said Karolus Sangaji, a search and rescue worker.
Dozens of relatives were gathered at Semarang seaport, desperate for news of loved ones.
Neneng, a housewife, stood weeping on a street corner.
"I'm worried about my husband. There has been no word if he is safe or not," she said.
"I'll wait here until I get confirmation," she added.
Four naval ships, police boats, and commercial vessels, along with three helicopters, have been combing the area from where the ship last had radio contact with port authorities.
Officials said the car ferry, built in Japan in 1990, had a capacity of 850 passengers and had been in good condition. They said bad weather likely caused the accident.
"We all just prayed as the waves got higher," said passenger Cholid, who survived by clinging to wooden planks.
"I was going upstairs to try to help my daughter, but the ship suddenly broke up and I was thrown out. I lost her," Cholid said.
The ship ran into trouble 40km off Mandalika island, about 30km northeast of Jakarta, while en route to Semarang in Central Java Province.
Ferries are a main mode of transportation in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with a population of 220 million. Accidents are common due to overcrowding and poorly enforced safety regulations.