PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea — Rescuers have plucked more than 230 survivors from the sea off Papua New Guinea's east coast after a ferry sank Thursday with 362 people on board, officials said. More than 120 remain missing.
An airplane from Australia, three helicopters and eight ships were scouring the search area after the MV Rabaul Queen went down while traveling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to coastal town of Lae on the main island, Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement.
Owners of MV Rabaul Queen, Papua New Guinea-based Rabaul Shipping Company, said Friday there had been 350 passengers and 12 crew aboard the 22-year-old Japanese-built ferry.
"We are stunned and utterly devastated by what has happened," managing director Peter Sharp said in a statement
The ferry sank 50 miles east of Lae and 10 miles from shore, the statement said.
Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted police in Kimbe, where the ferry sailed from, as saying most of the passengers were students and trainee teachers.
The authority's dedicated search and rescue airplane based in the northern Australian city of Cairns had reached the scene by afternoon and another two Australian airplanes were on the way. All three carried life rafts that could be dropped to survivors in the water.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said the cause of the sinking was unknown.
He said more than 300 people were aboard the ship, although the precise number had yet to be confirmed.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the incident a "major tragedy."
"Given the likely very high loss of life here, I think when this news comes to the attention of Australians around the country they will be thinking about the people of PNG as they respond to this tragedy," she added.
The Australian maritime agency initially detected the ferry's distress beacon and alerted the PNG Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, which is coordinating the rescue effort.
The Australian statement said 219 survivors had been recovered by five ships by late Thursday.
It added that 350 people were believed to be on board, but Papua New Guinea's National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) rescue coordinator Captain Nurur Rahman said the true figure was likely lower.
"I cannot confirm or deny the 350 missing number. It is hearsay," Rahman said. "I have not seen the manifest as yet, but it is likely around 300."
'Bad weather' or light swell?
Rahman said he was being fed information from an NMSA agent on board one of the ships.
"The dynamics of this thing are changing all the time, minute by minute," he said.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Carly Lusk said a greater loss of life may have been avoided as sea conditions were good, with a 10 knot wind and a light swell.
"We are getting more life rafts out into the water. There have been more reports of vessels sighting people in life rafts, so we're hoping for the number (of survivors) to increase in the very near future," she said.
The AFP news agency reported that ferry operator Star Ships had said the sinking had been caused by "bad weather."
Papua New Guinea, Australia's nearest neighbor, is largely undeveloped, with poor infrastructure and limited facilities despite enormous resources wealth.
The majority of Papua New Guinea's six million people eke out subsistence lifestyles in villages clinging to jungle-clad mountainsides or scattered around its many islands.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.