Indonesia questions captain of sunken ferry, widens search for victims

Rescuers search for missing passengers from Monday's ferry accident at Lake Toba at Tigaras port in Simalungun, North Sumatra, Indonesia. (REUTERS)
Updated 21 June 2018
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Indonesia questions captain of sunken ferry, widens search for victims

  • The Southeast Asian nation frequently suffers boat sinkings, with basic safety rules often flouted and vessels overloaded
  • Authorities were waiting for more sophisticated navy equipment that can plumb depths of as much as 450 meters

TIGARAS, Indonesia: Indonesian police on Thursday questioned the captain of a ferry that sank without trace in a volcanic lake in Sumatra this week, warning that a criminal investigation could be launched over a disaster that has left at least 192 people missing.
Desperate relatives awaiting news of loved ones prayed and sang hymns at the port on Lake Toba after one of Indonesia’s worst ferry disasters in years left four confirmed dead and 18 survivors, including the captain.
“We see there’s a possibility to begin a criminal investigation because of negligence that resulted in people losing their lives,” national police chief Tito Karnavian said during a visit to the base of rescue operations at the lake, one of the world’s deepest.
“The captain may be named a suspect,” Karnavian said, adding that regional transport officials would also be questioned about supervision.
Authorities were trying to get clearer information from the captain and survivors on where the vessel went down.
“(The captain’s) health remains unstable. We asked him some questions, but he has yet to remember clearly,” police official Agus Darojat told Metro TV.
Teams of divers resumed a search for the wooden ferry, which may have had aboard nearly five times the number of passengers it was supposed to carry when it went down in bad weather on Monday.
“We’ve expanded (the search area) from 6 km to 10 km,” Budiawan, an official of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, told reporters. That is equivalent to a range of 3.7 miles to 6.21 miles.
Authorities were waiting for more sophisticated navy equipment that can plumb depths of as much as 450 meters (1,500 feet) in some places, he added.
The picturesque lake fills the caldera of a giant ancient volcano that erupted about 75,000 years ago in one of history’s biggest eruptions.
On the quay, hundreds of people sang hymns, some in the regional Batak language, in an area of predominantly Muslim Indonesia that is home to a large Christian community.
Waiting at the quayside for news of the family of her 20-year-old daughter who took the ill-fated ferry, one distraught mother criticized the disorganized nature of the initial rescue effort.
“Just looking at the videos of them throwing lifesavers, it looked haphazard,” the woman, Turia, said on Wednesday, describing attempts by nearby ships to help survivors.
The mobile telephone of Turia’s daughter, who was accompanied on board by her husband and the couple’s 2-1/2-year-old daughter, has not been active since Tuesday, Turia added.
The Southeast Asian nation frequently suffers boat sinkings, with basic safety rules often flouted and vessels overloaded.
Last week, 13 died after a boat carrying about 43 people sank off Makassar on Sulawesi island, while a speedboat carrying 30 passengers sank off South Sumatra, killing at least two.
In Lake Toba, there has also been a string of previous accidents, including a 1997 sinking that killed about 80 people.
President Joko Widodo said the government would push to prevent future boat accidents.
“I ask that this kind of case will not happen again and I have asked the transport minister to evaluate all safety standards for ferry transport,” he said in a statement late on Wednesday.


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.