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The sea tragedy that claimed 10 lives

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, April 14, 2014

IT may not have been the weather condition that the crew of the fishing vessel had expected while out at sea.

What the 10crew members of the Wasawasa 1 went through at that time and whatever happened to them can only be assumed.

Storm or hurricane force winds were affecting the Yasawa and Mamanuca groups and northern and western parts of Viti Levu with gale force winds affecting the rest of Fiji on that day.

On the front page of the March 10, 1997 edition, The Fiji Times reported on the missing ship and what the authorities had to say about it on page three.

It was reported the crew abandoned ship after making a distress call and boarded life rafts.

The vessel sank 20 minutes after the crew abandoned it, it was reported.

Despite a search by the authorities after the cyclone had passed, there had been no word on the whereabouts of the crew since that fateful day.

The adverse weather condition was the result of Tropical Cyclone Gavin, which was named by the Fiji Meteorological Service on March 4.

Gavin stayed in the Fiji Group from March 2, when it was first identified as a slow moving tropical depression to the northwest of Rotuma and West of Tuvalu, to March 11.

The cyclone caused widespread destruction and several casualties, including the disappearance of the fishing vessel's crew and some fishermen in other parts of the country.

Josetaki Kunaluvea of Rukurukulevu Village in Nadroga was at work at the Shangri-La's Fijian Resort in Cuvu when storm or hurricane force winds were affecting the Western parts of the country.

Mr Kunaluvea said he and three others were working for a contractor at the resort when they saw the Wasawasa 1 in Cuvu Bay or Davetalevu Bay on March 7.

"Since there was a cyclone warning, we were putting tarpaulins on the new roof at the resort when we saw the vessel going out of the bay to open waters," he said.

"The weather was very bad at that time and from the three-storey building that we were on, we could see Wasawasa disappear in the fog and rain.

"It was after a few days when I learnt that the vessel had got caught in the tropical cyclone and there was no sign of it or its crew."

Mr Kunaluvea said he was aware that the vessel was last seen near Vatulele, which was quite some distance from the bay. He said the disappearance of the crew was a tragedy and a mystery.

He said on December 17, 2012, a boat owned by the resort mysteriously disappeared from where it was moored at the resort's jetty in the bay.

"There was no one on board the Fleet Lady II when it disappeared from the mooring area during the height of Cyclone Evan. It hasn't been found to date.

"Its disappearance is also a mystery because no one was on board and it just broke off from where it was moored and found its way out of the passage.

"The wind could have taken the boat to the other side and it would have been stuck there but it just went right out of the opening at the reef without any guidance and disappeared."

However, in the March 11, 1997 edition, this newspaper reported the search for the 10 missing crew had intensified after parts of the stricken vessel were discovered floating 150 miles southeast of where it had reportedly sunk.

On the front page of the March 12 edition, it was reported that a full-scale search for the missing crew of the fishing vessel was underway, with a New Zealand Air Force Orion also taking part.

After four days of extensive aerial and sea search, it was reported on the front page of the March 13 edition that the search would be called off within the next few days.

In the March 14 edition, this newspaper quoted the then Director of Marine, Captain Waisale Salu saying the ship was never issued with a sea-going certificate.

Fiji Fish managing director Grahame Southwick said then, the vessel was not registered because of inadequate marine laws.

Mr Southwick was reported saying he agreed with the findings of the Marine Department in 1993, when various defects were found with the ship.

"But one has to realise that we had just bought the vessel and it did not conform to all the safety standards prescribed by the Marine Department," he had told this newspaper then.

"If I did not intend to have the ship registered, I would not have undergone the initial survey process.

"I abandoned the idea of registration when I found out that technicalities in the Fiji Marine Act prevented many overseas vessels from being registered in Fiji."

Mr Southwick was reported saying the vessel which was registered in Taiwan had undergone many repairs, including those recommended by the Marine Department before sailing in Fiji waters.

On the front page of the March 17 edition, this newspaper reported that family members of the missing crew feared for their future as the search for their loved ones had been called off.

In a page three report on the same day, Mr Southwick had said that Fiji Fish would provide financial support for the families of the missing crew, adding all company workers were covered under its insurance policy.

Despite the search being called off, family members of the crew pleaded to continue searching until the ship's life-raft in which the crew left the ship is found, it was reported on March 18.

In the March 19 edition of this newspaper, Mr Southwick was reported saying that insurance for the crew of Wasawasa 1 had been finalised but he did not disclose the amount.

On the front page of April 1, 1997, this newspaper reported the families of the crew members were unwilling to accept the $15,000 compensation proposed to them by Fiji Fish.

In a report on page three of the April 3 edition, Mr Southwick was reported saying Fiji Fish was a privately-owned company and the deals it struck with its workers were a private matter.

He had also said the deal with the crew members' families was confidential and he would not disclose any information.

* NEXT WEEK: Tracing the crew members' families.

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