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Indonesia to probe why reporters were allowed on fire-gutted ferry

Posted: 02/26/07 at 9:14 am

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Authorities vowed Monday to investigate why accident investigators and reporters were allowed to board a fire-gutted Indonesian ferry that then capsized, killing one person and leaving three others missing.

"This is a bitter experience for all of us," said Setyo Rahardho, the head of the National Transport Safety Commission. "Journalists will not be allowed to accompany investigators any more."

The Levina 1 caught fire Thursday early into a voyage from the capital, Jakarta, sending hundreds of panicked passengers jumping into the Java Sea.

At least 49 people were killed, and the Indonesian Red Cross said the number could be nearly three times that according to relatives still seeking lost loved ones. More than 290 people were rescued.

Roni, who goes by only one name, said his 23-year-old cousin, Rudi, called him on a fellow passenger's mobile phone to say he was boarding the 2,000-ton ship, but has not been heard from since.

"We can't find him on the list of dead or missing," he said, waiting with seven other family members at Jakarta's main port on Monday. "We've given up hope of finding him alive, but maybe they'll find his body."

The fire was Indonesia's second major maritime disaster in recent months, with the death toll steadily climbing day by day.

Adding to tragedy, at least 16 accident investigators and journalists were taken by police boat to tour the ferry wreckage that tugboats had pulled to waters near Jakarta's port on Sunday.

Soon after the party boarded, the vessel listed sharply and sank within five minutes, witnesses said. A cameraman was killed, while three people were still missing.

TV footage taken before the craft sank showed that many of those on board were not wearing life vests. Officials have said vests were available, but police did not make wearing them a condition of joining the trip.

Ferries are the cheapest and most popular form of public transportation in Indonesia, a vast nation of 17,000 islands, but safety standards are poor, leading to hundreds of deaths each year.

Indonesia has been hit by a string of transportation disasters in recent months. In late December, a passenger ferry sank in a storm in the Java Sea, killing more than 400 people. Days later, a passenger plane operated by the budget airline Adam Air crashed into the ocean, killing all 102 people on board.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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