UPDATE: Search and rescue ops for Belaga boat survivors resumes tomorrow
KUCHING: The search and rescue (SAR) operation for survivors of the ill fated express boat that sank this morning in the Rajang River near Belaga, will resume at first daylight tomorrow, said Sarawak Police Commissioner Datuk Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani.
As of 9.30pm tonight police confirmed there were 181 survivors while another 23 passengers were believed to be still missing in the accident after the overloaded vessel crashed into a rock and sank at the Jeram Tukok/Jeram Bungan, about four hours journey upriver from Sibu.
"The SAR operation, involving police personnel and other relevant agencies, was halted at 6pm due to darkness," he told Bernama here.
Based on initial findings, he said, police believed the express boat was overloaded with more than 200 passengers, who were returning for the Gawai Dayak festivities.
The identities of those still missing were sketchy because there were no official figures of passengers on board as the express boat operator was believed to have not kept a manifest, he said.
Meanwhile, Sarawak Rivers Board (SRB) will conduct a full investigation into the tragic accident involving an express boat that sank this morning in the Rajang River, with 23 passengers still missing, its chairman Datuk Roland Sagah said today.
Bernama quoted him saying SRB would not hesitate to take appropriate action against the express boat operator, who apparently did not heed the advice not to overload or allow passengers to climb on the roof when the vessel was too full while plying the rivers.
"I wish to express my sadness over what happened and sympathy for those involved in the express boat mishap," Sagah, who is also Sarawak state legislative assembly deputy speaker, told Bernama here.
So far, 181 passengers managed to swim to safety after the ill-fated express boat sank at the Jeram Tukok/Jeram Bungan area, about four hours' journey upriver from Sibu.
He said SRB's initial investigation indicated that the express boat, which was believed to be overloaded with over 200 passengers returning home for the Gawai Dayak festivities, had encountered engine failure before crashing into a rock and sank.
On calls by various quarters that SRB personnel must be stationed in the interior places, including Bakun and Belaga to monitor the situation before a major festival, Sagah said it was awaiting approval to set up offices in these two places, which were accessible via the Rajang River.
At present, SRB personnel from Kapit, another riverine town along the Rajang River, were monitoring these areas, he said.
Sagah said boat operators had been advised to provide sufficient life jackets for their passengers as it was compulsory for them to wear life jackets at all times in open boats.
Meanwhile, Sarawak Police Commissioner Datuk Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani when contacted said based on their initial findings, police believed the boat's load had exceeded its capacity for 67 seated passengers.
He said the identities of those still missing were sketchy because there was no official figure of the passengers on board as the operator concerned was believed to have not kept a manifest.
The Kawan Mas Express boat carrying the holidaymaker returning home to celebrate the Gawai Dayak festival this weeken, capsized near Tanjong Giam Bungan at 9am, which is an hour boat ride from Belaga.
Meanwhile, Sarawak Assistant Minister for Culture and Heritage, Liwan Lagang said the location is known to be deep with dangerous rapids.
He said there were also large rocks in the river at Giam Tukok, about 40 minutes' downriver by boat from Belaga bazaar and where 21 passengers remained missing until tonight.
When contacted in Belaga tonight, Liwan who is also Belaga assemblyman, said that based on the survivors' accounts, it was one of the large rocks that had caused the heavily-laden express boat to tilt sideway and eventually sank.
"I was informed by one of the survivors that the boat driver had earlier tried to avoid hitting a floating log in the river and while doing so, the rear side of the boat hit a rock which resulted in it tilting uncontrollably," he said.
Liwan said he was coincidentally flying past the area in a helicopter from Sungai Asap, Belaga, when he noticed the express boat beginning to sink.
He then requested the helicopter pilot to land somewhere near the scene before organising villagers from two longhouses in the area to rescue about 30 passengers, while some others on board managed to swim to safety.
Police in Belaga confirmed that 181 passengers survived the mishap, and according to Liwan, among them were young children.
"There were more than 10 (young children) in the boat as they were travelling with their families for the Gawai holidays," he said.
Liwan, who spent about three hours with the survivors, said he would remain in Belaga for the night to continue assisting the relevant authorities in the search and rescue operation.