Tonga may have to abandon attempts to recover the bodies of 93 people believed to be trapped inside a ferry that sank off the coast of the South Pacific country because of the expense of the operation, officials said Thursday.

Share story

Tonga may have to abandon attempts to recover the bodies of 93 people believed to be trapped inside a ferry that sank off the coast of the South Pacific country because of the expense of the operation, officials said Thursday.

Police said they had managed to confirm the identities of 37 of those missing and presumed dead after the ship capsized Aug. 5, but some of the rest may never be known because the passenger manifest conflicts with other evidence about who was on board.

Searchers using a remote diving device found a hulk they believe to be the Princess Ashika at a depth of 360 feet (110 meters) – at least 165 feet (50 meters) below the level to which New Zealand and Australian navy divers at the scene can descend.

The deep-sea equipment needed to access the hulk to search for bodies and clues to the tragedy is only available overseas, and such an operation would cost millions of dollars.

Lopeti Senituli, spokesman for Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, said no decision would be made on whether to call in deep dive experts until more survey work is done at the site.

Reconnaissance of the vessel and the area around it “will help the government make its decision,” he told The Associated Press.

The tragedy has reverberated throughout the tiny, impoverished kingdom, triggering accusations that the government allowed the ferry to operate despite being unseaworthy. The government rejects the claims.

Officials say 149 people were aboard when the ship went down 55 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Nuku’alofa.

In the first hours after the sinking, 54 survivors were rescued and two bodies recovered. No survivors or bodies have been found in extensive searches since. The missing include two French, two Germans and a Japanese, officials say. One British man is confirmed dead.

Police Commander Chris Kelley said the identities of 37 people among the missing had been confirmed, including four crewmen, six children, 13 women and 14 men passengers.

Officials were still trying to reconcile conflicting details of the remaining 56 people believed to be aboard.

“The process will take some time. Realistically, it may never be 100 percent accurate,” Kelley told reporters.

Police Chief Inspector Sokopeti To’ia said the problems in confirming the identities were due to some names on the manifest being shortened or only first names being used.

Also, some people bought their passage but never boarded the vessel, and in some cases “somebody else got on instead of them,” she said.

Still, investigators were confident the figure of 93 people missing was correct, she said.

New Zealand deep sea recovery specialist Bill Day said it would cost millions to recover the bodies.

“That sort of stuff’s done all day around the world, but you’re talking about equipment that isn’t in New Zealand and will have to be brought in to Tonga,” he said.

“It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to run an operation like that.”

He said the cost, the potential dangers for the divers and the months it would take to complete the recovery meant it was unlikely to happen.

“Very sad as it is, this may be one that’s impossible to do.”

To’ia said grieving Tongan families are “slowly accepting the fact that their loved ones won’t be returned alive.”

Associated Press writer Ray Lilly contributed to this story from Wellington, New Zealand.