BY JO CHANDLER
THE AGE (MELBOURNE)
STORIES OF SHIPWRECK, real and imagined, have a special place in the archive of human misery. The notion of being lost at sea, frail souls at the mercy of the elements, taps into our most deep-set fears.
Witness the barrage of remembrances of the Titanic, a century on, and the media frenzy around the grounding of European cruise ship the Costa Concordia on the Italian coast in January this year.
Three weeks after the Costa Concordia came to grief, with the loss of 32 lives, it was still making international headlines, overshadowing news that a heavily loaded island ferry vanished in wild seas off the Papua New Guinea coast somewhere around dawn on February 2.
For a while it seemed the story of the MV Rabaul Queen was destined, like the ferry, to sink almost without trace, obscured by the bluster of the continuing maelstrom of Papua New Guinea's political crisis and by early reports that now appear to have grossly underestimated the loss of life.
Almost three months on, the truth of the tragedy - together with disturbing questions about the conditions on board the ship, its safety systems and those of PNG's maritime protocols more broadly - is surfacing in the testimony of witnesses summonsed to hearing rooms in Port Moresby and Lae.
Over the past two weeks, more than a dozen survivors have quietly provided raw firsthand insights into what is shaping up as one of the nation's most devastating recent tragedies.
George Turme, a 20-year-old university student, was the first to testify to the inquiry before Commissioner Warwick Andrew, the Australian judge heading the investigation at the request of the PNG government.
Turme swears he was in the company of more than 500 other passengers on that wild, doomed overnight voyage from the island of New Britain to the mainland port of Lae - crammed shoulder to shoulder, packed onto the heaving decks so tight that sleeping, even sitting, was impossible for most.
Turme spent most of the voyage squashed into a toilet area with other men, who assembled around the decks trying to give more protected space in the interior to women and children who spilled across the floors (there were only 50 seats on the whole vessel). It was an act of gallantry that would backfire horribly when the ship capsized.
According to the ship survey certificate presented to the inquiry, the Rabaul Queen could carry a maximum number of unberthed passengers of 295, and up to 15 crew - a total of 310.
If Turme's estimate that there were more than 500 people on board - and it is one shared by several witnesses in sworn testimony to the inquiry into the disaster, but which outstrips passenger lists drawn from official manifests by about 50 - then well over 250 souls were lost when the Rabaul Queen sank in up to 3,000 metres of water.
The true toll may never be known, not least because the lack of records for the infants carried onto the ship by their mothers, and who could not save themselves or be saved.
Turme tells of the desperate, dark hour before the ship sank, as it listed heavily to the left - several witnesses were worried that the Queen seemed to be out of balance right from the time she departed Kimbe wharf.
Around dawn someone - maybe a crew member, though it was impossible to tell as they did not wear uniforms - called on him and about 20 other men to go to the starboard side and try to balance the ship as it negotiated its way through the notoriously treacherous Viliaz Strait, which separates New Britain from the mainland.
They tried to lean out over the right side of the ship as the big waves came. ''We look out for the strong wind. So when the waves hit the ship we all bend to the right side and try to balance it,'' Turme told Commissioner Andrew.
Once, twice, when really big waves came in, they succeeded in keeping it upright but then ''another strong wave come, came and hit the ship''. It struck the back of the vessel on the starboard side and the Queen began to roll over to the left. Turme and the men with him all leapt into the water as she capsized.
A strong swimmer, Turme kept himself afloat in the dark, oil-slicked seas, swimming desperately away for a few minutes before turning back to see a couple of black life rafts, and climbing aboard one.
''When the vessel went down people were crying and shouting for help, so we tried to rescue some of them, mothers and children. Some of the children were already floating on top of the sea … they were already dead.''
In less than 10 minutes the Rabaul Queen sank under the waves. Turme and another 17 survivors - all adult men, no women or children found their way to the raft - were crowded into his lifeboat, riding the waves and the wind through the dawn and into the next afternoon. The lifeboat held no water, food or medical provisions - just a whistle. Turme and a couple of others vomited.
Lucille Pongi, a mother and housewife from Lae, had also made her way into one of the life rafts. She was a Rabaul Queen veteran, having made the voyage at least 10 times before. This was always the busiest time of the year for the ferry - with a new school term about to begin, students, families and teachers were returning to the mainland after spending Christmas visiting wantoks (extended family) in their island homes.
Pongi had worried about overcrowding on previous trips, and recalled for the commission that when she had complained to a crew member a few months earlier - asking how many passengers were aboard - she had been told that the ship took 500 passengers. The man had said, ''We normally take more than that'', she said.
On this trip she was travelling with her sister and her niece. They had already endured a sickening night of wild weather travelling from Rabaul, at the eastern tip of New Britain island, down to Kimbe at the western end.
When the exhausted passengers were ordered off in Kimbe for a couple of hours to allow the ship to be cleaned, refuelled and loaded with more passengers and cargo for the last leg of the journey to Lae, some thought better of continuing the journey. Many persevered though, fearful that they would forfeit their 350 kina ($A160) fares, or have to pay a fine to delay the journey.
Pongi was tempted to join them - indeed her son came to speak to her on the wharf at Kimbe because he was so worried. ''He said 'Mummy, do you wish to travel?'' He had heard there was a cyclone warning in Fiji and wild seas forecast through the PNG islands. ''Look at the waves - you still wish to continue?''
As her sister wanted to push on, Pongi felt compelled to continue. But she was not happy. ''I tell you it was so crowded, more than what we normally … had on board. There was no space. You just cramped like that when we were sitting down. There's no place to stretch your leg, to sleep or rest your bag. We had to, you know, just sit up like this all night … there were so many people on board.''
Another passenger, a man, had told her that when he boarded a woman standing with the manifest and counting heads had told him: ''You are the last one, and the total is 500-something.''
Unable to sleep, she became worried when she heard a strange whistling noise sometime in the dark of the early morning. She roused her sister. Something was not right. ''I think the ship has a hole in it.'' Her sister said: ''Well, you've got funny ideas.''
But, Pongi told the inquiry, ''The ship was unbalanced, leaning toward the left''. Soon after dawn she was screaming at her sister: ''Dianne, don't sleep, get up, we're in trouble. Get the crew to give us a life jacket and get us prepared.''
But the life jackets, when she found them, were padlocked in a wire cage - a claim also made by several other witnesses.
Pongi said she was ''calling out for the people to give us the life jacket because I knew it was about to sink and I was standing there when the waves hit the ship and it just capsized.
''I was under the water for some time and I don't know … I had my eyes open and it was like a movie I was watching, under the water inside the sinking ship. I was swimming, trying to, you know, find my way out.
''I could see men, women and children, you know, struggling and then some children were … drowned already, they were just floating.''
People struggled to open sliding glass doors. Somehow she escaped. ''I had a prayer, I said thank you Lord. If you wanted me to die, I could have died already in there.''
She grabbed a ''little rainbow bag'' that was floating in the water and clung to it for maybe an hour before finding her way into a lifeboat. Her sister and niece also survived.
Determining the true passenger numbers is one of the central preoccupations of the inquiry. Other main areas of investigation emerging in questioning so far relate to the condition of the vessel; its cargo load; access to life vests and life rafts; the competency of the crew; the weather conditions and processes for the issue of weather warnings (it emerged that the National Weather Service had no internet because the responsible department had not paid the bill); and the competency and oversight of the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA).
One passenger witness, architect Roderick Voit, claimed he saw a brown beer bottle thrown from the wheelhouse into the sea soon after the ship left Kimbe wharf.
Insurance and marine survey specialists have given evidence of concerns about the condition of various vessels in the Rabaul Shipping fleet, and one inspection document from 2006 noted that some life rafts were missing - apparently taken for servicing.
Another witness, Roby Naigu, officer in charge of the NMSA, raised concerns about the man at the helm of the Rabaul Queen when she foundered, Captain Anthony Tsiau. Naigu said he believed Tsiau had previously run two ships aground - though his knowledge of this history was challenged by the defence.
''This is the third one, Rabaul Queen, under his command. I believe we would have saved this Rabaul Queen incident if … as an authority we were alerted to this past issue of the same captain who has sunk two other ships already.''
He had also had a confrontation with Tsiau two years earlier after accusing him of inappropriately loading dangerous goods - canisters of oxygen and acetylene - aboard the Rabaul Queen, a matter that had flared into a confrontation and later a legal dispute with the ship's operator, Rabaul Shipping Ltd.
On the question of passenger overloading, the integrity of manifests has been closely scrutinised. The inquiry has already heard from one passenger who was not listed on any manifest.
The managing director and major shareholder of Rabaul Shipping Ltd, and operator of the Rabaul Queen, Australian-born veteran seaman Captain Peter Sharp has conceded under questioning by counsel assisting, Queensland lawyer Mal Varitimos, that there were up to 376 passengers and crew on board, plus infants.
Sharp has been the focus of intense local anger and personal threats over the tragedy. Three of his other ships were torched in Bougainville shortly after the Rabaul Queen sunk.
Meanwhile investigations by PNG authorities to identify all the people on board, including a public appeal for family and friends to come forward, led to estimates of 453 people on board including children, 230 of whom had been rescued; four bodies located; and 219 listed as missing.
Sharp - who has pledged to fully cooperate with the inquiry - told the inquiry that the Japanese-built, 42-metre vessel had specifications that it could carry 358 adults. This figure appears in some of the insurance and certification documentation tended to the inquiry.
He insisted under close questioning that the ship was not overloaded, quoting a provision in the Merchant Shipping Act that a passenger vessel is not overloaded if it does not exceed its load marks as determined on the hull.
''The vessel was operating safely,'' Sharp told the commission. He said in loading the vessel his crew would ''basically look at the load line. If they're not over the load line they consider they are not overloaded.''
More hearings are scheduled to continue at ports along the Rabaul Queen route, and a report is due to be presented to the PNG government by June 30.
Jo Chandler is a senior writer with The Age