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Ferry sinks off Tonga; dozens missing, feared dead

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — Giving women and children the comfort of cabins while men stayed on deck may have doomed them to be trapped inside an overnight ferry that capsized in heavy seas off Tonga, officials said. Dozens are missing and feared dead.

Tongan Police Commander Chris Kelly said Friday that the Princess Ashika was carrying 117 passengers and crew — "62 of them unaccounted for" — when it went down around midnight Wednesday, about 55 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of the South Pacific island nation's capital, Nuku'alofa. ship

The 62 missing included four crewmen, 19 male passengers, 21 female passengers, seven children and several names that could be male or female, he told New Zealand's National Radio.

Fifteen of those rescued "were not on the manifest and this just illustrates the difficulty ... of identifying who was and was not on the boat," Kelly said.

"No women or children made it," passenger Siaosi Lavaka was quoted as saying by the Matangi Tonga Web site after he was brought ashore with the other male survivors who managed to cram aboard the ferry's seven or eight lifeboats.

Only two deaths have been confirmed so far. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said one of them was a British citizen.

Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele said the tragedy was "big for a small place."

"This is a huge disaster, a huge loss, we'll try and cope with it as best we can," he told reporters in Cairns, Australia, where he was attending the Pacific Islands Forum.

The missing passengers, mainly Tongan women and children who were sleeping in cabins below deck, likely would have gone down with the ship, he said, so chances they would be found alive "are not great."

A lot of boats traveled between islands of the archipelago every day and "the ratio of accidents to trips is quite small," Sevele said.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, hosting the summit of South Pacific leaders, indicated the toll was expected to rise.

"There has been considerable loss of life," Rudd said in the northern Australian city of Cairns. "Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those that have been affected by this great tragedy."

The ferry had been traveling from Nuku'alofa to outlying northern islands of Tonga, which lies in the South Pacific, about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. Authorities said women and children had been taken below to cabins for the overnight journey. The men stayed up top, sleeping rough in balmy conditions that turned tumultuous.

Lavaka, whose mother was among the missing, said he woke to find the ferry rocking violently and waves breaking over the ferry's lower decks.

The rocking apparently shifted cargo to one side of the vessel, unbalancing it and turning it over, he said.

"We woke up to the sound of shouting and we jumped off," he said.

A mayday distress call was received from the Princess Ashika shortly before midnight Wednesday and it sank soon after, Kelly said.

"It appears that those passengers who were inside the vessel in cabin-type accommodation did not actually gain exit; only those who were outside," Transport Minister Karalus told New Zealand's Prime News television, explaining why all of the survivors so far were men.

The search for survivors continued Friday, with five boats and an airplane in the search area, where weather conditions were reported to be good with clear visibility.

New Zealand — which has responsibility for maritime emergencies in Tongan waters — sent a military plane to join in, overflying a trail of debris some 10 miles (15 kilometers) long for most of Thursday and again Friday.

Most survivors were picked up from lifeboats within a few hours of the search starting, said New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center Mike Roberts.

"We're hoping that we'll find more survivors effectively clinging to wreckage," Roberts told New Zealand's National Radio, adding that water temperatures of about 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) added to people's chances, although no more survivors had been located by sunset Thursday.

Associated Press writers Rohan Sullivan in Sydney, Australia, and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.