Commodore Webb did not know the medical conditions of the seven, except that they were “pretty dehydrated” when they were found.
He said the survivors had told rescuers that the ferry split in two and sank, and that they were able to use the dinghy because it detached from the larger vessel. Earlier in the trip, the ferry, the MV Butiraoi, had hit an atoll, forcing it to undergo repairs to its propeller shaft.
Despite information from the survivors about where the ferry sank, Commodore Webb said that a week of ocean currents and wind meant searchers were covering an “exponentially larger” area of ocean every day. The search zone now covered 200,000 square miles.
But he said he was “optimistic” there could still be other survivors, even though there was “no news” at the end of Monday’s search.
Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, told Radio New Zealand International that the ferry may have been carrying as many as 100 passengers, despite earlier reports placing the number at roughly half that.
The local authorities reported the ferry missing two days after it failed to arrive in Kiribati’s capital, South Tarawa, leading to questions about why New Zealand’s government, which assists with rescues in the area, was not notified until a week later.
Commodore Webb said that with passengers and fishermen traveling between Kiribati’s 32 atolls, often in “rudimentary vessels,” it was not unusual for voyages to run late, or for New Zealand to be called upon to help find boats. He would not comment on why it took so long for Kiribati’s government to ask for help.
New Zealand’s military deployed a P-3 Orion, a maritime surveillance aircraft, in the search. Commodore Webb said Kiribati’s government had asked the United States and Australia for help, too.
In the meantime, he said the seven survivors would stay at sea in the fishing boat until other arrangements for a rescue boat were made.