Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Search for survivors of capsized express boat continues

An express boat packed with more than 200 people rushing home for the Gawai harvest festival capsized in the middle of the Balui river here, killing many people.

The boat carrying passengers three times the official seating capacity of 67 capsized after hitting a boulder in the middle of the raging Balui River in Belaga district in central Sarawak, about 400km from Sibu, yesterday.

A native community leader said a fast-moving express boat overladen with 204 people and goods and racing past rapids and dangerous torrents in a big river like the Balui was dicing with death.

Penghulu Saging Bit, a native chief in Bakun, said in the tragedy yesterday in which at least two bodies have been recovered and dozens more feared trapped survivors had attested to the boat being so cramped that many passengers had to sit on top of the roof.

“The site of the tragedy is at a place called Giam Bungan. It is between Belaga and Kapit. There is a small stretch of rapids there. According to the survivors, the boat started picking up people in the upper reaches of the Balui River not far from the Bakun Dam.

“They were on the way to Belaga, Kapit and Sibu. The passengers were mostly local natives from Kapit and Sibu who were working in plantations near Bakun.

“Many of them were timber and oil palm workers. They wanted to go home for Gawai (which falls on June 1 and 2),” Saging said.

It is understood that the boat had started its journey down river from upper Balui near the Bakun Dam at about 6am.

“By the time it approached Belaga town area at about 8am, it was already packed with people.

“Some of the survivors said the boat was overloaded, so when it passed by Belaga town it could no longer pick up passengers.

“About 30 minutes later, the incident happened.

“Some of the survivors told me that they felt the boat hitting something and seconds later it overturned,” said Saging.

“It is not clear how many are still trapped inside.”

A call to the Belaga police station revealed that almost all the personnel there had been rushed to the scene, including the police chief and his assistant.

The Balui River joins the Rajang River at a confluence near Belaga town and runs all the way to Kapit town and Sibu before flowing into the South China Sea.

As at 4pm yesterday, two bodies were reported to have been recovered, including that of a pregnant woman, as rescuers pulled a few dozen survivors to dry land.

The massive operation involved teams from the police, the Fire and Rescue Department and other departments and community bodies based in Belaga, Kapit, Bintulu and Sibu,

At press time, the teams were still searching for 23 missing people, some of whom are believed to be trapped inside the vessel, said the Belaga police.


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