Semarang (Indonesia): Navy ships scoured the rough Java Sea on Sunday in search of survivors from a ferry that sank in a storm off central Indonesia, leaving more than 500 people missing, officials said.
More than a day after the accident, 109 survivors had been rescued, Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa told reporters in Semarang late on Saturday. The ferry is thought to have had 638 passengers, Radjasa said. No bodies have been recovered, but some survivors reported seeing fellow passengers slip beneath the waves.
The Senopati Nusantara had been on a 48-hour trip to Java from Borneo island when 15-foot waves crashed over the deck, said Slamet Bustam, an official at Semarang port, the ferry's destination.
Witnesses reported seeing lifeboats with more survivors and most people had donned life jackets.
Indonesia's tropical waters are between 72 Fahrenheit and 84 Fahrenheit and people have been known to survive days at sea.
''I don't want to speculate on how long people can survive floating on the sea, we only hope they can survive,'' said Karolus Sangaji, a search and rescue worker.
Panic broke out just before midnight Friday when the ferry began shaking and veering after being pounded by raging waves for 10 hours, witnesses said. The lights blacked out and passengers scuffled for life preservers as it capsized.
''The wave was so high and the ship's crew told us not to panic,'' survivor Bekti Riwayati told Associated Press Television News. ''But we were panicked and the ship went down. It took two hours to sink.''
Some clung on to pieces of wood or swam to nearby islands.
Another survivor, Budi Susilo, said he saw three people drown after losing their grip on an overturned raft.
''We told them to hold on, but they ran out of energy,'' he told reporters.
Four naval ships, several other vessels and at least two aircraft have been searching the ship's last reported position, but poor visibility and stormy seas hindered their effort.
Officials said the car ferry, built in Japan in 1990, had a capacity of 850 passengers and had been in good condition.
They said bad weather likely caused the accident.
''We all just prayed as the waves got higher,'' said passenger Cholid, who survived by clinging to wooden planks.
''I was going upstairs to try to help my daughter, but the ship suddenly broke up and I was thrown out. I lost her,'' said Cholid, who gave a single name.
Ferries are a main mode of transportation in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with 220 million people. Overcrowding and poorly enforced safety standards mean accidents are common.