A revised passenger manifest issued on Friday increased the number of people on board the Princess Ashika from 79 to 117, Tonga’s police commander Chris Kelly said.
Tonga’s Prime Minister Feleti Sevele has asked New Zealand and Australia to send navy divers to help recover bodies from the ferry, saying there was little chance of finding more survivors.
“The hopes for the rest are not promising unfortunately,” he told journalists in Australia, where he is attending a meeting of Pacific island leaders.
“It’s a very sad day… it’s big for a small place. This is a huge disaster, a huge loss, we’ll try and cope with it as best we can.”
There were six foreigners on board including British, German, French and Japanese nationals.
Kelly said 53 people survived the tragedy but other rescue workers put the number at 55.
Women, children sleeping below decks
Two bodies have been recovered, including a British man who was carrying a New Zealand driver’s licence, and most of the missing are believed to be women and children who were sleeping below decks when the ferry sank.
Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki, of the Tonga National Centre for Women and Children, said it was common for male passengers stay above deck and that was probably why the survivors were male.
New Zealand Air Force Orion pilot Nathan McMaster, who was involved in the search, said it appeared there was adequate safety equipment on the ferry “and it was certainly a factor in saving as many people as they have”.
The ferry has been found in 35 metres of water, prompting Sevele’s request for divers to help in body recovery.
Sevele said the cause of the sinking was unknown and although questions have been raised about the vessel’s seaworthiness he said it had passed safety inspections and was found to be suitable for insurance.
“We were quite satisfied according to the reports we got before we actually paid for the ship,” he said.
Guttenbeil-Likiliki said when the Princess Ashika was bought in July it took almost a month for it to sail from Fiji to Tonga, and people believed that was because it kept breaking down.