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Shipping tragedies that shook Fiji

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, April 21, 2014

THE sea was rough and nothing was visible in the dark.

With him were four men, a woman and three children, who had survived a tragedy a few hours earlier.

As time passed in the dark night, one of the children, a 14-year-old girl, succumbed to injuries she suffered in the tragedy.

Since nothing could be done, he and others who were clinging to the hope of being rescued released the girl's body in the sea.

It is one of the things that remains etched in the mind of Cama Gu, now 70, who was a crew member on the Uluilakeba when it sank on December 10, 1973.

On December 12, 1973, The Fiji Times reported on its front page the capsizing of the Uluilakeba and the Makogai, a few hours apart two days earlier.

Cyclone Lottie was lashing the country when the two ships capsized at different places in the Lau Group.

This newspaper reported on December 12 that 74 passengers and 21 crew members were in the Uluilakeba when she capsized almost in the centre of Cyclone Lottie.

Several people who survived the incident drowned soon after because they had nothing to keep them afloat, it was reported.

It was also reported that there were many schoolchildren among the 74 passengers and they were on their way from the Lau Group to spend their holidays in Suva.

The cargo ship Soochow rescued 36 people who survived the tragedy and were clinging onto hope for survival soon after the incident.

Survivors told the authorities then that the Uluilakeba capsized and sank 20 miles north of Vatoa about 1:30pm on Monday (December 10, 1973).

The first survivors were reported to have been rescued eight miles north of Fulaga in the Lau Group, having drifted about 25 miles from where the ship capsized.

On the front page of the December 13, 1973 edition, this newspaper reported that hope for 54 survivors from the Uluilakeba tragedy was fading.

It was reported that there were 41 known survivors who were on board the Soochow that was expected to berth in Suva on the same day.

Mr Gu told The Fiji Times he was among the survivors who were rescued by the cargo ship from the deep sea.

On the front page of the December 14, 1973 edition, survivors of the ill-fated 212-tonne inter-island ship described how they had to jump into the sea without life-jackets when the ship capsized.

The survivors also told of their fight to stay alive in the rough seas without food and water, with some for at least 48 hours after the ship capsized.

It was also reported only two bodies, including that of an American woman, were recovered from the Uluilakeba as the search continued.

On the same day, police released the names of the 41 known survivors of the tragedy and said 84 people were presumed missing from the Uluilakeba and Makogai incidents.

With a good knowledge of the area, then Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, had also personally participated in an aerial search for the survivors in Lau waters.

His participation in the rescue efforts was publicly praised by the skipper of the rescue ship Soochow, Captain Ben Aldiss.

Mr Gu, who was 21 years old when the Uluilakeba capsized, said the ship unloaded cargo at Vatoa in Lau and left after 10am on December 10 while Cyclone Lottie was affecting the country.

"We were heading to Suva and we got caught in the cyclone. We tried to go across to Ogea but we couldn't because of the strong winds, heavy rain and rough seas," he said.

"The ship was out in the deep sea and it started to capsize.

"I left the ship at about midday when it was going down and I couldn't take anything with me.

"After about 30 minutes or so, I saw a 44 gallon drum that had rolled down from the ship and I got it and clung to it.

"The day slowly ended and night came and it became dark. The cyclone was battering the country at that time and we were stuck in the dark in rough seas, with nowhere to go."

Mr Gu said the ship had sunk by late Monday afternoon. He said five men, including him, a woman and three children stayed together in the water.

"A 14-year-old girl who was with us in the group had suffered injuries, probably when she escaped from the sinking ship. Her condition wasn't good and she died on Monday night.

"Since we were in open seas and hoping to be rescued by someone, we couldn't do anything so we just released the girl's body in the sea.

"The cyclone had passed when daylight broke on Tuesday, December 11. There were eight of us then and we could see Fulaga and Ogea islands in the distance.

"But we couldn't swim that far as the sea was very rough and the water was just moving in circles and pushing us around in the open sea.

"We saw a ship later in the morning and we were very happy, thinking it was coming to rescue us but it didn't come.

"This disheartened us and we remained in the sea for another night without any food and water, just hoping and praying that we would be rescued soon," said Mr Gu.

NEXT WEEK: The rescue and

the scars of the tragedy.

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