Ferry Disaster Toll Rises; President Demands Better Safety

JAKARTA ~ The death toll from the country’s latest ferry disaster rose to 54 by Wednesday as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told passenger boat operators to improve safety.

The latest body found was a journalist missing after the Levina I ferry, which caught fire on Thursday last week, killing scores of people, sank near a harbor in Jakarta.

The body was retrieved on Tuesday, the same day rescuers found the bodies of two policemen who also disappeared when the listing, charred vessel sank. All three had boarded the wreck to investigate its remnants.

President Yudhoyono himself took a ferry trip on Tuesday amid criticism of the country’s transport sector following three major disasters since December that have killed hundreds of people.

“During the trip we have seen and asked other passengers, and it turns out there is still a lot that needs to be fixed so as to provide a better service for them,” Yudhoyono said.

The president said he had seen for himself breaches of safety regulations. He also called on ferry operators to check the cargo on their vessels more thoroughly.

“There should be no vehicle carrying dangerous materials or goods,” he reportedly said.

The Levina I had been towed to just outside Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok port from the site of the fire when it sank on Sunday with investigators on board.

Estimates suggest more than 350 people were on the ferry when flames engulfed it, though the exact number remains unclear.

About 250 were rescued, more than 50 are believed to be missing and the number of confirmed dead is 54. The search for bodies continues.

“Five navy ships are combing the waters around the Seribu islands today,” Hendra Pakan, a spokesman for the Western Fleet, said on Wednesday, referring to a series of islands north of Jakarta that are also known as the Thousand Islands.

Search operations were to end on Thursday, Bambang Karnoyudho, the head of the agency responsible for the effort, told local media.

Police detained a number of people following the disaster and the government revoked the ferry operator’s permit for declaring fewer passengers on its manifest than it was actually carrying.

Recent air, sea and rail accidents in Indonesia have been blamed on the lax enforcement of safety regulations, poor maintenance and a lack of investment in transport infrastructure.

Ferries are a crucial link between the archipelago’s 17,000 islands and frequently carry more people than officially acknowledged.

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