Safety of ferry passengers under scrutiny

Safety of ferry passengers under scrutiny
PHOTO: Courtesy of Darini Soegiantoro

Ms Chella Ho vividly remembers the chaotic scenes on board the ferry Sea Prince when it struck an object just below the water surface last Sunday night as it made its way from Batam to Singapore.

People scrambled to get on to life boats, into which water was seeping, while others held on to ropes at the side of the ferry so that they would not drift. Lights on several life vests failed to work and the Indonesian crew, with little command of English, could not explain the situation clearly.

"I was pretty scared at first when no one was telling us what had happened," recalled the 29-year-old, who works in a chemical firm and was on the way back from a holiday with two friends. She was one of 97 passengers - including 51 Singaporeans - and seven Indonesian crew members on board the ferry.

"It was dark, the ferry was not moving and we had no idea where we were. The thought of death did cross my mind and my friends and I were trying to calm one another down."

Everyone escaped unscathed but the incident has also raised some questions on whether more needs to be done to ensure the safety of passengers as increasing numbers head to Batam. The number of travellers from here to the island located 20km - or about an hour's ferry ride - south-east of Singapore rose from 4.5 million in 2012 to about 5.1 million last year.

The head of the Port of Batam, Mr Gajah Rooseno, had said that according to preliminary investigations, the Indonesia-registered Sea Prince, which was operated by Batamfast, was stalled by a rope.

"Upon checking the engine, it was determined that it stalled because the propeller snagged on a rope in the water," he said.

Two passengers who spoke to The Sunday Times told of a dramatic night. The ferry had left the Nongsapura Ferry Terminal in Batam around 6.40pm, slightly after its scheduled departure at 6.10pm .

Ten minutes into the trip, the ferry hit an object in the sea. The ferry's hull was struck and breached, causing water to flow into its steering compartment.

Mr Swagat Banerjee, 23, who was sitting on the upper deck, said: "We first heard a loud noise. It sounded like an object had hit the blades of the propeller. The ferry stopped abruptly. We didn't know what was happening; we thought it was a small technical fault."

Passengers said that no announcements were made. Instead, the crew told them to put on their life vests. "One guy, who looked like a crew member, opened a box and started handing out life jackets, but there was no explanation as to how to wear them," said Mr Banerjee, a senior associate in business development and finance, who went to Batam also for a holiday.

"The life jackets were rudimentary. There were black straps that you had to tie to your waist, but people did not know how to put them on and it took a while to figure out."

Ms Ho said a group of passengers, including a marine engineer and mechanical engineer, went to look for the captain to try and get an explanation- but none was forthcoming. Passengers were later told by the crew they had to get on life rafts to return to the Batam ferry terminal.

Ms Ho said: "People rushed to the exits when the life rafts were ready. But others told them to let the elderly people and children go first.

"We were told not to bring any of our bags, so I put some of my belongings, like my passport, drinking water, handphone and purse, into a plastic bag. But some were still carrying backpacks.

"There was some distance between the ferry and life raft, so the crew helped to transfer us, but it was still a jump."

A minute after getting on a life raft with more than 40 other passengers, Ms Ho realised her pants were soaked and water was getting in. She had also lost her slippers, purse and keys along the way.

"We told the crew to stop loading people. The water was choppy, people were panicking and they were trying to hold onto ropes at the side of the ferry. Some people were shouting 'hold hands!' so that we wouldn't drift away," she said, adding that the life raft she was on also tore.

Mr Banerjee recalled having to help an elderly woman in her 60s transfer from one life raft to another. "A lot of people were throwing their belongings across the boats and jumping across," he said.

Mr Chua Choon Leng, passage operations manager at Batamfast, said it had immediately activated two ferries to rescue passengers but these could not enter the channel as it was too narrow and the water was too shallow.

Three bumboats from local fishing villages nearby were activated to help passengers, and this was part of Batamfast's standard operating procedure, he added.

Ms Ho and her friends were among some of the passengers hoisted onto the bumboats. In the process, the left side of her neck suffered a minor sprain.

According to the account of another passenger which was posted on Facebook, passengers started getting even more worried when they smelt smoke. Crew members also did not know how many people each raft could take and gave different answers ranging from 30 to 65. When the passengers made their way back to the Nongsapura Ferry Terminal before taking another ferry to Singapore, there was confusion if each one was accounted for.

On their arrival at the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, passengers were told that two shuttle buses would take them to Bedok Bus Interchange, and they could leave from there on their own.

"No one offered any explanation or apology or compensation. Many of us were wet and barefoot. Some of us were quite angry," said Ms Ho.

"Some people stayed back to talk to the representative from Batamfast. After two to three hours of waiting, they distributed $50 transport vouchers to whoever was left."

Mr Banerjee said: "The operator needs to investigate - its crew training, upgrading its life safety materials and emergency procedures. It could have been a lot worse."

Ferry operator reviewing emergency response procedures

Ferry operator Batamfast revealed last week that it is conducting a review of its emergency response procedures, and will involve third-party consultants if necessary.

However, it also insisted that its evacuation resources on its ferry Sea Prince, including life rafts which can fit 65 people each, were in "full working order" when it struck an object in Indonesian waters last Sunday night on its way to Singapore from Batam.

Mr Chua Choon Leng, passage operations manager at Batamfast, also told The Sunday Times: "I know passengers online are complaining that the rescue process took such a long time.

"But I think we put in as much effort as we could - considering how dark it was at night - and managed to transfer the passengers within two hours."

He stressed that no one was injured and all 97 passengers were accounted for.

He revealed that Batamfast is assisting the Singapore and Batam authorities in investigations, and four of the seven crew members on board Sea Prince - the captain, the chief deck officer and two engineers - have been interviewed.

Batamfast also said that all its equipment undergoes regular testing to comply with local port state and international Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) requirements, adding that its crew members are "highly trained in the standard operating procedures in the event of accidents on voyage".

In response to queries, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said that Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee will be conducting an investigation, as required by the International Maritime Organisation's Casualty Investigation Code.

This is because the incident occurred in Indonesian waters and involved an Indonesia-flagged vessel and crew, a spokesman said, adding that Singapore and the MPA will assist the Indonesian authorities in the process.

She said the investigation, which may take up to a few months depending on its complexity, aims to "identify the causes of the incident and prevent future incidents".

The last incident in Singapore waters occurred in June 2011, when a Belize-registered passenger ferry, FB Falcon Princess, was travelling from Changi Ferry Terminal to Tanjung Belungkor Ferry Terminal in Johor.

It encountered an engine problem and beached north of Pulau Tekong. The incident did not result in any injuries or pollution.

This year, there are 47 ferries plying the route between Singapore and Batam. Last year, the figure was 48.

Ships must comply with maritime safety rules

Passenger ships on international voyages must comply with standards set by an international maritime safety treaty called the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (Solas).

Rules include having clear directions on what to do in the event of an emergency - from telling passengers their muster stations to how to don lifejackets. These have to be expressed through illustrated instructions in appropriate languages, and must be conspicuously displayed.

The country that the ship is registered with is responsible for ensuring that it complies with these rules.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) told The Sunday Times that it conducts regular inspections on all ferries entering and leaving Singapore.

ts officers check the documentation of the ferry and its crew to ensure that it is seaworthy and that the crew members are trained. They also physically inspect emergency equipment such as lifebuoys, lifejackets, life rafts, line-throwing appliances, the general alarm and public address system.

They also check that the number of lifejackets provided is consistent with that stated in the Passenger Ship Safety certificate, and test that the whistle and lights are working.

Checks also include ensuring that ferries have enough life rafts for passengers and they are serviced at least once a year. The servicing has to be carried out at an approved service station in the country or state that the vessel is registered with.

The MPA relies on the certificate issued by the life raft servicing company as evidence that they are in good condition, said a spokesman.

"Ferry operators are required to ensure the proper rectification of any deficiencies when these are found," she added.

The MPA launched a Safety@Sea campaign last year to increase awareness of safe practices at sea.

It also set up a National Maritime Safety at Sea Council in August to lead the push for maritime safety and work with other countries in the region. Over the last few years, the MPA has held safety briefings and workshops for regional ferry operators and their masters and crew.

It also carries out regular emergency preparedness exercises on scenarios, including ferry mishaps and rescue of passengers.


This article was first published on Dec 6, 2015.
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