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Stories From Kiribati


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An interview with two of the survivors of MV Butiraoi

Posted by Amota Eromanga on June 25, 2019 at 10:05 AM

The sea disaster MV Butiraoi and its passengers had gone through is one of the worst ocean accidents to have happened in the waters of Kiribati. It indeed had taken the lives of 81 citizens that included olds and children. MV Butiraoi is a 17.5 meters long wooden ferry and prior to the disaster, it had been one of the vessels used for marine transportation within the islands of Kiribati.

The accident occurred on the 18th January, 2018, while the ferry was returning to Tarawa from Nonouti - the distance of about 155 miles. There were 88 people (passengers and crew) on-board the ferry at the time of the accident and from that, 45 of them were males and 43 females. The search and rescue efforts for the passengers started on the 19th of January, after the alarm was received. The search from the air by Fiji and New Zealand did not commence until the 26th January - a week after the alarm. Shortly after that, Australia and USA joined the air search teams. On the 28th January, seven passengers were found alive drifting on a boat, thus the search still went on until the air search was called off on the 1st of February. Remaining passengers hadn’t yet been found until the night of February the 6th; when the interview with the returned survivors was conducted and broadcasted to the nation over the radio. [info source:- internet & interview itself].

The interview was conducted in the Kiribati language whereby two of the seven survivors shared the detailed accounts of the disaster - right before the trip until the time they were rescued. Knowing that if this unambiguous information isn’t kept (in any form) somewhere, it would soon be forgotten and eventually lost forever from the midst and minds of IKiribati. To help avoid the lost from happening, I therefore taped the interview when broadcasted over the radio - with the hope of publishing it later in time primarily as a reference and reminder for our future generations.

Below is the English translation of the interview I taped. The translation wasn’t easy for reasons that; I had to keep it reliable to the source and more importantly is wording it within the limit of our cultural values and feelings. This information isn’t new indeed as it’s actually a written translation of what was already broadcasted to the public.

Before we go further, let’s offer a minute of silence to “HONOUR THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES AND THOSE SURVIVED THIS HISTORICAL WORST SEA DISASTER” ... God bless them all.

INTERVIEW - Note: Interviewer’s questions are in ‘italic’ followed by survi-vors’ replies in ‘non-italic’.

Interviewer: Where did your trip begin and how many of you?

Survivor: My family and I left our village Tebuange to Tabiang village with the help of a motorbike. At Tabiang, we waited for some time as copra was still being loaded onto MV Butiraoi. When we finally got onto Butiraoi, the ferry went slowly through the lagoon towards Matang village. On the way to Matang, the ferry ran onto a few rocks causing damages to some parts of the shaft. The broken parts needed repair therefore the ferry anchored out there. The crew removed the shaft and took it ashore to repair. When the shaft was fixed, it was returned and secured back again into the ferry. Then, the ferry continued its way to Matang village.

How many people or who were with you on this trip?

There were more than 10 passengers from Tebuange village including my family - myself, my wife and our two children (a girl 8 years old and our youngest son 3 years old).

Where did the ferry go after it had been fixed?

It went to Matang village. At Matang, more passengers boarded the ferry. Several empty fuel drums were also loaded onto the ferry. That was Wednesday and everything seemed set and ready. On Thursday morning at around 10 am, the ferry began its long journey to the island of Tarawa. At about 3 pm on that same day, as the ferry reached far north of Nonouti island, the accident took place. It all started with a big cracking sound coming from the hull of the ferry. Passengers asked the captain to stop the vessel and to drop the boats into the sea. But the captain seemed not listening as the vessel seemed to pick up speed. The passengers were angry and shouted at the captain to stop the ferry. Then the second big cracking sound was heard again. The duration between the two alarming sounds was roughly 30 minutes. Passengers got out and told the captain that the vessel was about to collapse.

Where was the ferry then? Was the island (Nonouti) still visible?

Yes, the island could still be seen in the distance. As the ferry went on, the third cracking sound came up again. The ferry finally collapsed right after the sound.

Can you explain how the ferry broke?

The ferry broke inwards and along the middle of its doubled body (hull).

Before the breakage, I warned my wife and children to jump off the outer side of the ferry if the collapse happened. However as the ferry finally collapsed, I jumped into the sea off the outer side but my wife and children were taken inwards with the ship.

Can you recall how many passengers were with you when the ferry left Matang?

More than 17 passengers.

Were there other passengers traveling with their children, like you did?

Many had their children with them. Some mothers were taking their children to Tarawa before school started.

What happened to the people after that?

Passengers were swimming around trying to free from the breakage but sadly some died right away out there. Two old women died as they were caught inside the passengers’ cabin and therefore couldn’t escape.

What about the boats? Were they floated out in time?

Boats were there, but the crew didn’t have time to release them before the incident. They were released after the ferry had collapsed. Passen-gers cut the ropes to free the boats while the crew set up the life boat.

While the passengers were panic as well as trying to get onto the boats, what about you, your wife and your children, were you still floating or trying to swim to a boat?

Yes, we were swimming to one of the boats. When we reached that boat, I helped them to get on. More passengers were still coming up onto the boat. Some climbed onto the ferry.

How many boats floating altogether?

Three, two aluminum boats and one rubber life boat.

All the boats were over crowded, right?

They were over crowded, but more still tried to get on. That life boat could accommodate 20 people but there were about 30 people climbing onto it. Because of that, the bottom part of the life boat got broken.

Were there passengers who couldn’t get onto any of the boats?

Yes, some were still in the sea. With life jackets on, they floated beside the boats. They kept holding the sides of the boats.

Did the boats floated away separately or were they able to stick together?

Yes, we floated to the same course, since we tied the boats together - yes the three boats. The captain and the other passengers floated away towards the island as the sea current seemed to drag them away.

What about the captain and the other passengers?

They were on the broken ferry and the broken life boat since the cap-tain took it.

So there were some who couldn’t get onto the boats, right?

Yes, many couldn’t get onto the boats, more than ten, so they remained in the sea floating beside the boats, yes the crew, school students, and adult passengers.

Was it nighttime when the accident happened, and was the weather rough or calm?

It was daytime when the accident took place and the sea was rough. The wind was strong and the waves rose high. That was why the acci-dent happened.

Were you able to stay or float together on the night of the accident?

Yes, all three boats were drifting together. Everyone was okay until the next daylight. We drifted together to the same direction and to where the wind blew us to.

How long you managed to stay together until you started to get separated?

We stayed together until the second day. On the third day, the problem occurred to one of the boats - it capsized and sank. So its passengers swam to our boat and some to the other rubber boat. We moved passengers who came to our boat to the rubber boat because our boat was about to sink. So I went to my wife and asked her to give me the knife. I then cut the rope to avoid our boat from sinking as the other boat was sinking down. After cutting the rope, our boat began to float a lot better. At the next daylight, our boat had been separated from the others.

What about those in that broken life boat, you mentioned the bottom part to have been torn?

Some were inside and others outside, they just went drifting that way.

Can you continue, you said that you had been separated.

Yes, at the next daylight, we no longer saw the other passengers. We went on separate ways.

How many passengers were there altogether, on and around your boat?

Thirty altogether. Four in the sea and more than 20 on the boat.

Who were in the sea, what age and were they men?

Yes, they were men. I was one of them, two crew and another passenger.

And who were in the boat?

Children, old women - no men, mostly females and children.

Your children were still with you. How many more children were there beside your own children?

More than 10 children beside my children.

The same ages as your children?

Yes, some seemed to 8 years, some 6 years and others around 2 years.

Can you explain what was the situation like on the boat and that with many children with you.

While drifting away on the boat, the children were hungry and began crying for food and drink. Unfortunately there wasn’t any food or drink for them.

Just no food available?

Nothing at all - food ran out just hours after the accident.

You mentioned food ran out, what was that food?

Coconuts - one bag of husked coconuts. The coconuts ran out hours back when we were together and before we got separated - yes many people at that time.

What did you give the children?

The children ate coconuts and drank their juice.

How long did you stay like that until people felt weak?

On the sixth day of drifting in the ocean, our friends began to get weak. People began to pass away.

Who were greatly affected and died, those on the boat or in the sea?

Those on the boat died, old women and children - they died of starvation.

What did you do to the dead bodies?

When someone died, the body went bad so quickly. Blood and smell came out. The bodies couldn’t stay long on the boat. So after saying a prayer, we put the body into the sea. The event was followed by a weep from those left behind.

You were still in the sea, right?

Yes because room on the boat was still not enough. Though two people died that day, we still had to stay in the water.

Can you recall, how many days until there was enough room on the boat for you?

After drifting for more than a week, the number of women and children on the boat had gone down. We finally got onto the boat when there was enough room for us - those in the sea.

The four of you who were in the sea. You all got onto the boat?

Yes, we all got onto the boat, but one of us (a passenger) died the next day morning.

And what about your children?

My two children were still fine. Sadly, my three year old son died some time later. We prayed beside his body before we finally let him go. We cried deeply after him.

How many people were with you now?

9 or more than 10 people remained on the boat.

What about your other child?

Our 8 year old daughter, who was 8 stayed with us until Saturday night when she died. After saying a prayer beside her, we finally put her in the sea

Please tell us how did you cope with the heat and cold?

When the sun was hot, we went into the water to cool ourselves. For those who couldn’t do that, we fetched and poured water on them.

I know all were very thirsty. What did you do for that?

We tried to make fresh water by filling a bucket with sea. After covering it, we left it out in the sun. Two days maybe, we drank it thinking it was fresh water, when in fact it was just seawater. We shared it around to help us from thirsty.

Any of your friends began to act strangely, lose their minds or become hopeless?

Many had lost their minds. Some were there without clothes, others just swam away stating they would buy cold drinks and ice-creams for their children.

At night or day time?

Yes, it happened during the day. They just died that way.

Did you do something to help them?

We swam after them with a line but they just went off as if they were on land until they disappeared.

Can you recall the time when the rescue arrived?

It was Sunday and there were only 7 of us remaining.

How? Did you wave to the plane in order to see you?

We saw the plane that just flew so low towards us, made two rounds above our location, then went off. It came back again, but this time dropping us water and a radio from the air.

You all felt very weak, right?

That’s right. I felt very weak that I couldn’t move my hands and legs easily. My friends felt the same. But the sight of the plane, really brought life back to our bodies again. We sat up and told everyone that the plane had arrived.

And the situation of the youngest child who was still there with you?

Yes, the child seemed to be one that really needed help as he was very weak. Those in the plane told us to let that child know that help was coming soon and to encourage him to stay strong.

What did the plane drop to your boat?

Three plastic bottles of water and a sweet. We opened the first bottle and shared it, then the second and the last one. We emptied all of them.

How long did you wait for the rescue after the plane discovered you on Sunday?

The rescue finally arrived in the afternoon on that same day. Three boats came and carried all of us to the ship. Around 3 pm, we were all on the ship.

One of the ferry’s crew had a serious injury on his leg, how did it happen?

His injury happened during the ferry’s breakage. Maybe, his leg got stuck and was ripped by the broken frames of the ferry. Yes, it was very serious - the bone was almost visible and badly swelled up.

What was the first thing you did when you got onto the ship?

We drank water provided to us. Water was the only thing we had until early that evening when we were given food. The food was like soft porridge made of flour, rice and water.

Were there any I-Kiribati crew working on that ship?

Yes, there was only one I-Kiribati while the rest of the crew looked like Chinese.

You were given some clothes?

That’s right, long pants and sleeves - their fishing clothes - and some blankets. We were given soap then asked to bath.

Did the ship continue fishing or it waited there for another transport to pick and take you home?

The ship stopped fishing and continued searching. It kept searching for three days. On the fourth day, the patrol boat Te Anoai arrived.

Doctors and nurses were on Te Anoai with the team. What did the team do to you?

When we got onto Te Anoai, they performed on us some heath tests including blood pressure, diabetes and so on.

As you seem to be the only survivors of this worst sea disaster, 7 of you altogether, can you just share your feelings that you were lucky to have seen your families again?

We thank God that we could meet our families again, we could have died but thanks God for keeping us alive.


Categories: True Stories

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