Rabaul Queen anniversary marks few changes for safety

Finschhafen district, where the Rabaul Queen disaster happened. Credit: The Foundation Finschhafen District/Oceanian Photography 2018

Eight years after the Rabaul Queen ferry disaster in Papua New Guinea (PNG), few safety measures and changes have been implemented.

Between 300 and 350 people were on board the ferry on 2 February 2012 when it sank and capsized. An estimated 181 died, according to a subsequent police investigation led by Constable Ben Turi.

Despite a recommendation from the commission of inquiry into the disaster advising for government funding into the country’s National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA), to ensure the safety of its waters, the NMSA is in essence funding the government. The NMSA is a self-funded entity operating via a ship tonnage levy – half of that levy goes to the PNG government’s coffers.

The NMSA, though, has received assistance from abroad, including the Asia Development Bank, Australia and Japan.

PNG has only 29 passenger ships in operation. Most of them are very old, but are now regularly inspected by the NMSA, according to Captain Krzysztof Orlowski, executive manager, maritime operations.

“The vast majority of sea travel in PNG is in open, fibreglass, six metre dinghies. There are more than 15,000 in service. These dinghies comprise 95% of the nation’s fleet and also carry 95%of coastal cargo and passengers. There are over 40 million people travelling on dinghies in PNG each year, with an estimated 755 fatalities in 2018 alone.  That’s our biggest headache now,” Orlowski said.

The NMSA has tested new dinghies with added flotation chambers to ensure they meet new stringent safety standards for buoyancy. However, the dinghies must be ordered and purchased privately.

While the Japanese cabinet has passed a JPY1 billion (USD9.1 million) project for three rescue boats and rehabilitation of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) equipment, funding of a multipurpose oil spill response vessel is yet to be approved.

Furthermore, the victims’ families and survivors of the incident were promised that the attorney general would review the case; however, this has not materialised nor have those affected by the tragedy been compensated.

Subsequent investigation into the Rabaul Queen disaster found the vessel unseaworthy. In 2017, the vessel owner and captain were both acquitted of manslaughter charges and further charges of taking an unseaworthy vessel to sea were dropped.

“The attorney general promised last year he would renew the case,” Turi told SAS.  “But so far there’s been nothing. We will see what the next course of action is.”

SAS contacted the attorney general for comment, but his office has yet to respond. There have been no major maritime incidents since Rabaul Queen.