KUALA LUMPUR: Eleven of those who went missing after an overloaded passenger ferry capsized in churning rapids on a remote Borneo river have been found safe, a Malaysian police official was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
Authorities had estimated the number of missing at 23 before the latest survivors were found, but the police official reportedly said the precise number was unclear due to the lack of a passenger manifest.
Divers have been sent to search the boat, which was carrying more than 200 passengers—about three times its capacity—as people headed home for a festival celebrated by indigenous tribes in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
The accident happened on Tuesday morning on the Rajang River, Malaysia’s longest. Rescue efforts and solid information have been complicated by the location deep in the rugged jungle interior of the vast island of Borneo.
Bakar Anak Sebau, police chief of the town of Belaga near where the accident took place, said 11 more people were located in addition to 181 earlier rescued or found safe, the state news agency Bernama reported.
“As of now, we could not say how many more are still missing even though new survivors were found, unless we have the manifest,” Bernama quoted him as saying.
Bernama said that as of midday on Wednesday no bodies had been found.
The boat was heading downstream and was packed with travelers on the move for the coming weekend’s Gawai festival, an annual cultural and religious observance for indigenous Borneo tribes that triggers heavy travel.
Photos of the elongated boat in Malaysian newspapers, purportedly taken shortly before the accident, showed dozens of people sitting atop its roof.
Liwan Lagang, state assemblyman for Belaga, said those still missing may be stuck inside the now mostly submerged boat or may have struggled to the bank downstream.
Sarawak is Malaysia’s largest state by area but also one of its least developed. With Sabah it is one of two Malaysian states on Borneo, which is also shared with Indonesia and the tiny sultanate of Brunei.
Many members of the indigenous tribal groups who predominate in Sarawak still live in traditional wooden longhouses in the interior, where fast-flowing but treacherous rivers are the quickest mode of travel.
The Rajang River winds 560 kilometers from Borneo’s wild central highlands to the South China Sea.
Authorities have yet to indicate whether action may be taken against the boat’s operators for taking on so many passengers.