Life rafts tore when we got on them, say passengers in Batam ferry accident
Batam-S'pore ferry hits floating object, passengers get into life rafts which tear and leak
The lights on the life vest, meant to attract the attention of potential rescuers, were allegedly not working.
None of the ferry crew seemed to know how many people the life rafts could safely carry.
And all four life rafts tore after the passengers climbed into them.
Worst of all, the rescue boats that were sent to the passengers never arrived and they had to be picked up by small vessels after bobbing in the cold, dark water for almost half an hour.
That was the horrific account given by some of those on board a ferry, heading to Singapore from the Indonesian island of Batam, which leaked after hitting something in the sea on Sunday night.
Ms Darini Soegiantoro, 32, and her boyfriend, Dutchman John Kerckhoffs, 50, were among the 97 people - including 51 Singaporeans and seven crew members - on board.
Fortunately, all were rescued.
Although the couple were happy to be alive, Ms Soegiantoro said they were appalled at the alleged lack of safety equipment aboard the Indonesia-registered ferry Sea Prince.
"Looking at the leaky life rafts, the chaos and horror as people fended for themselves and jumped into the next life raft or were getting hoisted onto boats and sampans, we realised that any of us could have died," said the product manager.
On Sunday night, the couple and their friends had boarded the 6.10pm last ferry to Singapore from the Nongsapura Ferry Terminal in Batam.
They sat in the front part of the lower deck. Among them were elderly passengers and families with children.
Ms Soegiantoro said: "Ten minutes into the journey, we heard a loud collision and a scratching noise, then the boat rocked. Everyone was quiet and just looked at each other, wondering what had just happened.
"Then we heard the engine slow down. A crew member came and checked something on the floorboard.
"I asked him in Bahasa Indonesia: 'What's going on? What happened? What are you doing there?' and he said he didn't know."
The engine sounded again and the ferry attempted to continue its journey. But less than a minute later, the same scratching sound was heard.
This time, the engine completely stalled. Some passengers stood, wondering what had happened.
Ms Soegiantoro said an alarm began to sound and a crew member rushed in, shouting: "Life vests! Life vests!"
Everyone started to scramble, yanking the vests from under the seats.
Ms Soegiantoro said: "There were all these strings hanging from the life vests and we couldn't get the buckles to work so we just tied the loose strings around our bodies.
"Most of the lights on the vests also failed to work."
As there were no further announcements, Ms Soegiantoro said she went to the upper deck to see what was going on.
"Upstairs, the older people were panicking and there was a crying toddler. As I was walking to the back, I felt the boat tilting," she added.
"I headed to the far back where I saw three crew members using a water pump, trying to bail water."
According to her, two men whom she believed were fellow passengers were also trying to scoop out the water that was already shin-deep
Ms Soegiantoro said she returned to the lower deck to let others know that there was a leak at the back of the vessel.
Soon after, they spotted one ferry coming their way but they were told by the crew members that the water was too shallow for the rescue ferry to pick them up without risking a similar fate.
As the rescue ferry started to turn back, one of the crew members shouted for his colleague to start launching the life rafts.
Ms Soegiantoro added that the first raft was inflated for the elderly and families with children. But after about 50 people had climbed in, it started to leak and a second raft had to be launched for those in the first raft to transfer to.
Mr Kerckhoffs, who is in business transformation services, said: "Each life raft is suitable for about 25 people but so many people were just trying to get out of the ferry, so the rafts were overloaded."
A third raft was launched on the other side of the vessel.
Passenger Adilah Rahmat wrote on Facebook: "The third raft burst due to overloading. The passengers panicked because they could not feel their feet on the raft anymore. Water had come in and the base of the raft was torn, it was sinking.
"The only thing that passengers could hold on to was the rope encircling the raft.
"It also ensured that the passengers did not drift apart.
"A nearby boat came towards the third raft, trying its best to get passengers onboard."
Ms Soegiantoro and Mr Kerckhoffs, along with their friends, stayed back on the sinking ferry to ensure that everyone was safely on the life rafts before they got into the fourth raft.
Ms Soegiantoro, who was wearing a sleeveless dress, was drenched by the cold sea water as she climbed onto the raft.
She soon discovered that the raft had a small tear which she leaned against to stop water from entering it.
They floated away from the ferry in darkness for what felt like 20 minutes before a boat arrived and tried to tug their raft to shore.
The passengers aboard the raft tried to make small talk and boost the morale of the group.
The boat's motor failed twice and a bigger boat came to the rescue.
"The boat was oily, slippery and slimy but at least it was big enough to fit all of us and was stable," said Ms Soegiantoro.
When they reached the Nongsapura Ferry Terminal, they were pulled up to shore and were immediately ushered into a waiting Batamfast ferry bound for Singapore's Tanah Merah Terminal.
Ms Adilah said that when they reached Singapore, none of the officers and personnel appeared to know what had really happened.
She added: "There was no support rendered to the passengers. No personnel came forward to account for any injuries. There were no assistance in calming the passengers and ensuring them of any help.
"The authorities in Singapore were told that we were delayed as there was something wrong with the ferry and that we were safely transferred."
Batamfast: We have done our best
Two vessels were sent to assist distressed passengers on board the Sea Prince which had hit a floating object on Sunday night on its way to Singapore, said Batamfast's passenger operations manager Chua Choon Leng.
But it was risky for the larger ferries to get close to the Sea Prince.
Life rafts and sampans were then deployed to help the victims, Mr Chua added.
He said it was first alerted to the incident at 8pm.
Responding to claims by passengers that crew members hardly helped, Mr Chua said: "We had seven crew members on board - two to handle communication, two were busy pumping the water out and two to three left in action, so some might feel they weren't helping but we have done our best."
As for the life vests, he insisted that the company goes though monthly inspections to ensure that they are safe for use.
The Sea Prince is now moored at the Nongsapura Ferry Terminal and the company is investigating.
Replying to queries from The New Paper, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said it was informed at the time of the incident by ferry operator Batamfast that two ferries were deployed to transfer the affected passengers in Indonesian waters.
An MPA spokesman said: "Based on subsequent reports, the two ferries were unable to approach the vicinity of the grounded Sea Prince and the passengers were instead transferred by small boats and rafts to Nongsapura Ferry Terminal before boarding one of the ferries that was earlier deployed to take them to Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal."
The spokesman added that the affected passengers have since returned to Singapore and MPA is working with the Indonesian authorities to investigate the incident.
- NATASHA MEAH
and CHAI HUNG YIN