By Alfred Sasako
SOLOMON Islands Maritime and Safety Authority (SIMSA) chairman, Robert Bokelema, has reportedly issued a news blackout on the search and recovery operations following the sea tragedy last Friday night.
At the same time it has been revealed that the ship involved in the accident, MV Taimareho, allegedly switched off its radar and radio when it left Honiara at midnight on Thursday.
Two parallel investigations are now underway – one by SIMSA and the other by police. The SIMSA investigation is establish whether any marine rules were broken while the probe by police is to establish whether criminal negligence was committed.
Six bodies have since been recovered from the sea tragedy, including five on Sunday. Some 27 passengers were missing, reportedly fell overboard when the MV Taimareho was hit by giant waves on the crossing between Guadalcanal and Malaita Provinces.
Those who fell overboard were largely high school students, according to initial reports
It is not clear whether relatives of the 21 people who remain unaccounted for are included in the news blackout, issued by Mr. Bokelema after a meeting of the SIMSA Board of Directors on Monday.
It is also unclear whether the search and recovery operation has been called off.
Island Sun contacted SIMSA yesterday and was told that it is not allowed to say anything to the media on the matter because of an order by the Chairman of SIMSA Board of Directors, Mr. Robert Bokelema
“We’ve been told not to say anything to the media until a formal report on the accident is completed,” one officer confirmed yesterday.
Asked how long the report would take, the officer said SIMSA is working on it.
Attempts to speak to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Infrastructure Development, Steve Masiola were unsuccessful. He did not pick up his phone.
Search and Rescue came under scathing criticisms both in and outside Parliament.
West Are’Are MP, John Maneniaru, told Parliament the Search and Rescue Division of the Ministry of Infrastructure Development (MID) the “slow response to an urgent request for assistance” had cost innocent lives.
The MV Taimareho was on charter to Ward 24 of West Are’Are Constituency which owns the ship. It reportedly arrived back in Honiara yesterday afternoon.
“It takes twenty-four hours for the Search and Rescue division to respond to an urgent request for assistance,” Hon Maneniaru reportedly told Parliament on Monday.
Meanwhile, a relative of one of the missing people told Island Sun yesterday he had been informed by authorities that the radio and radar of the MV Taimareho were not switched on when the boat left at midnight last Thursday.
“Whether that was deliberate or not is a subject of SIMSA investigation because it is a violation of marine safety rules,” Charles Karamauri told Island Sun.
“I was told that even the urgent request for assistance was made via a mobile phone not the ship’s radio. This call was made when the boat was already at Su’u where it took shelter in West Kwaio. When the caller was asked why the ship’s radio was not used to make the emergency call, he simply said, it was turned off,” Mr. Karamauri said.
He said authorities also told him that responsible officers on the MV Taimareho did not even sign off on an authority form before it departed at midnight last Thursday. This form is a mandatory requirement for ships in the event the ship was stopped initially from sailing.
Mr. Karamauri said SIMSA had apparently stopped the ship from sailing because of alleged over-loading as well as the weather warning given to all ships around 3pm on Thursday.
“I am happy that these matters are now being investigated because we as relatives need answers. I would also like authorities to do a re-count because it has been reported that there were 738 passengers on board when a headcount was first taken,” he said.