An entry in the 2016 Crocodile Prize
WHEN she opened her eyes, Grace Kunsei saw that her right leg was stuck into a fire escape door and that door wouldn’t open. She pulled with all her might, but it just wouldn’t budge.
The MV Rabaul Queen was a passenger ship owned by the company Rabaul Shipping in Papua New Guinea. She was built in Japan in 1983 and brought to PNG in 1998, plying regular weekly route between Buka, Rabaul, Kimbe and Lae.
Nearing the end of her 20 hour journey from Kimbe to Lae, the Rabaul Queen capsized in the early hours of 2 February 2012 and sank four hours later. Twelve crew members and an estimated 350 passengers were aboard.
It is possible though, and Grace thinks this is so, that there may have been more than 500 passengers on the vessel. It was the worst tragedy to have happened in PNG waters.
Grace was 18 years old at the time and was about to start Grade 12 at Lae Secondary School. She was travelling back to Lae with her younger sister Amethyst, 13, after visiting their grandparents during the Christmas holidays.
They left Kimbe on Wednesday 1 February 2012 at 1 pm. It had not stopped raining since the weekend.
When they got on board Rabaul Queen, it was packed with passengers, especially students from Bougainville, New Ireland, East New Britain and other who boarded at Kimbe wharf. The weather was appalling and waves started rocking the ship as soon as they left Kimbe.
Because the ship was overloaded, Grace, Amethyst, two female cousins and an uncle were outside on Deck B. They put down their bags but there was no space to sit, so they stood.
The rain was torrential and the ship was tossed around at the mercy of the sea. Men, women, boys and girls were seasick. Grace and her relatives stood on the deck staring at the angry waves.
After they left Bulu Point, there was no land in sight. There was only the dark curlingwaves, monstrous waves, hitting the ship from all sides, swivelling it off its course as, with mounting fear, the passengers struggled to keep their balance.
Grace and everyone on Deck B were wet from head to toe as the sea came pouring over the deck. They held rails, ladders, doors, whatever they could. Inside the people were packed like sardines in a can.
After passing Siassi Island at 1 am Thursday, the waves eased somewhat and the rain ceased. Grace and her sister squatted next to their bags and tried to get some sleep in the last hours before daybreak.
At 5 am the sky cleared but the sea was still rough. Everyone on the ship was weak and tired. Many now slept. Grace was awake looking out at the clear sky and the angry waves.
At around 5:50, Grace’s uncle wanted to chew betel nut, so she got a nut from her bag with lime and mustard. When she turned to walk towards him, he called her name and told her to walk safely.
Grace tried to catch what he was saying when a massive wave hit the right side of the ship, pushing the left side underwater.
Grace was swept her off her feet and held the side rails for dear life, thinking the wave would come and go. But the water kept pouring in and she realised the ship was going down.
She felt she was being pushed by ten hands on her face and then felt her uncle’s hands on hers as they held the iron rail to steady themselves. Then her uncle pushed her out of the ship and the current swept him away. That was the last time she saw him.
Grace was drawn back towards the ship by the force of the ocean and something hit her on the back and she found herself being washed along the steps that led to Deck A. She opened her eyes trying to see where she was, when the current sucked her into its coiling force and washed her away again.
When she opened her eyes again, Grace saw that her right leg was stuck in a fire escape door which wouldn’t open. She pulled with all her might, but the door wouldn’t budge. The thought that the ship might sink made her force out her leg and she felt the knee cap break. There was nothing else in Grace’s mind except she must not go down with the ship.
She swam away from the ship swallowing salt water and the slimy oil that covered the sea’s surface. There were people everywhere calling to their loved ones and friends, all of them covered in black oil. The waves kept rolling separating people and washing them away. Grace could hear the terrible sounds of people drowning.
A few metres away, Grace saw her little sister, Amethyst, and called out to her to swim towards her. But the sound of men and women screaming, children crying, the wind howling and the rumble of the waves meant Amethyst did not hear her call.
Grace saw a life raft being washed towards her. She held it and told a Bougainvillean boy to stand on her shoulders and climb aboard. He got in and pulled Grace up and then she pulled in his sister. But it was difficult to balance because the raft was upside down.
People were still screaming but Grace and the others couldn’t help them because the mountainous waves made rescue impossible.
Gradually more people clambered on top of the upside down raft and the huge waves kept coming.
Around 4 pm, MV Moi Summer, an ocean liner owned by a shipping company in German, came alongside. Ropes were thrown down to the liferaft and the men tied them to the sides of the raft to steady it.
The ship’s crew threw down huge nets and rope ladders for the survivors to climb. And finally they were safe and were given water, fruit, food, coffee, cigarettes, clothes, bath towels, soap and chocolate.
There were 113 survivors on Moi Summer and they were brought to Lae the next morning, Thursday.
Grace was put in an ambulance with three other women and taken to Angau Hospital. She had swallowed a lot of oil and sea water, her right pelvic bone was fractured and she had a broken knee cap.
She was in hospital for six weeks during which her parents and fellow church members prayed continuously and cared for her unconditionally. Grace recovered.
The following year, she went back to complete her schooling.
Amethyst survived, and came out of the ordeal unharmed.
Peter Sharp, the owner of Rabaul Shipping never compensated the victims. He said the tragedy happened because God willed it and it had nothing to do with him.
He has not compensated any survivor or the relatives and families of those who perished or are missing.
The PNG government gave K3,000 to each survivor to start their lives again. Grace spent her money on hospital bills and medication. Grace was interviewed a couple of times by the police, but nothing has been done.
Grace is now happily married and has a son named Philip. She works as a penciller at the Kina Betting shop in Lae.
She has never forgotten the most tragic day of her life. She sees it clearly in her mind every time someone talks about it.
She will remember it for the rest of her life.