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Ashika witnesses tell disaster inquiry of corrosion, holes, late-night welding

Princess Ashika disaster's death toll of 74 passengers and crew made it the nation's worst shipping tragedy to date. Photo: TNews.

The Princess Ashika death toll of 74 passengers and crew made it Tonga's worst shipping tragedy. Photo: TNews.

Pacific.Scoop
By Josephine Latu

Potentially damning testimonies from a welder and an engineer were presented this week to Tonga’s Royal Commission of Inquiry charged with investigating sinking of the Princess Ashika interisland ferry.

Their accounts come days after New Zealand’s TV3 News reported that Tongan Prime Minister Dr Feleti Sevele had “changed his tune” over the seaworthiness of the ship.

Dr Sevele has denied the reports.

Sinking on August 5 – barely a month after being commissioned by the Tongan government – the Princess Ashika’s death toll of 74 passengers and crew made it the nation’s worst
shipping tragedy.

None of the victims’ bodies, including those of a Niuean, two French people, two Germans, and a Briton could be recovered from the sea bed.

Hearings began this week, presided over by a three-member Royal Commission – chairman Justice Warwick Andrew, master mariner Michael Handfield and naval architect Richard James.

Night-time welding
Matangi Tonga
reports that Mosese Fakatou, former Deputy Secretary at Tonga’s Ministry of Ports and Authority, testified that when inspecting the ferry on August 4-5 he noted holes and areas of severe corrosion on the walls and decks of the ferry.

During his statement on Tuesday, Fakatou presented 37 photographic slides, including those showing holes in the cargo deck through which the ocean below was visible, blocked scuppers (drain holes on the deck), worn out ropes and safety rails, and a broken and heavily rusted gate where “wandering passengers could have easily fallen overboard”.

There were also photos of heavily corroded areas freshly painted over.

On Thursday, a second witness – a welder with 20 years of work experience with the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd, the company  owning the Princess Ashika – also testified to the vessel’s unseaworthy state.

Manase Katoa described performing welding work on the ferry since July 2 right up until the day it left for its fatal voyage to Ha’apai.

The day before the voyage, Katoa said he worked on the Ashika until 10pm.

According to reports from the Tonga Broadcasting Commission, Katoa told the hearing that the ferry’s first voyage came back with a hole, and that anyone could see it was heavily corroded – “even by standing from the wharf”.

He also affirmed that under supervisor Sateki Tupou, he and his brother were assigned to close up a gaping hole on one side of the vessel, and that crew members had to cover corroded areas of the upper deck with metal sheets.

100 people interviewed
More than 100 people have been reportedly been interviewed in relation to the Royal Commission’s inquiry, including experts from overseas.

Captain Doug Monks from New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission told Australia Network News he would deliver an interim report to the commission in two weeks.

About 10 government ministries and relevant stakeholders in the kingdom are said to have had some involvement or connection with the case and will be involved in the hearing.

The final report from the inquiry is due to be presented to Parliament no later than March 31, 2010, although hearings will continue until January 12. – Pacific Media Centre

Josephine Latu is a masters in communication studies student at AUT University and is contributing editor to the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch project.