Villagers and relatives wait on a pier at Tigaras port on June 20 for rescue teams to find missing passengers from the ferry accident the previous day at Lake Toba in Simalungun, North Sumatra. Picture: REUTERS
Villagers and relatives wait on a pier at Tigaras port on June 20 for rescue teams to find missing passengers from the ferry accident the previous day at Lake Toba in Simalungun, North Sumatra. Picture: REUTERS

Simalungun — Nearly 180 passengers are missing after a ferry sank into the depths of a volcanic lake in Indonesia, police said Wednesday, almost tripling initial estimates — but the search-and-rescue agency cautioned it was still unclear how many people were aboard the vessel when it capsized.

The wooden boat, which sank on Monday on Sumatra’s Lake Toba, a popular tourist destination, was thought to be operating illegally, with no manifest or passenger tickets.

The situation has sparked confusion — and different estimates from various agencies — about the number of people on board.

Indonesia’s disaster agency, separate to the search-and-rescue body, originally said about 80 people were on the boat along with dozens of motorcycles when it overturned and sank.

Police said in a statement on Wednesday that there were as many as 178 people missing, which if confirmed would make it one of Indonesia’s worst maritime disasters.

The estimates have been based on local people reporting missing relatives who they believed could have been on the ship.

"But many people got on the boat without a ticket so it’s unclear how many were on board," Muhammad Syaugi, the head of the search-and-rescue agency, said.

So far, at least three bodies have been found and another 18 people rescued, according to the local disaster agency, as the search turned to recovering victims — including those still trapped inside the sunken boat.

The search-and-rescue agency said search operations would continue for at least a week given the size of the enormous body of water, which fills the crater of a supervolcano that is believed to have erupted tens of thousands of years ago.

It is one of the deepest lakes in the world and covers about 1,145km².

On Wednesday the size of the search was increased to about 400 personnel.

"We are looking to search an area as deep as 400m, but we haven’t found anything yet because the area is very large," Syaugi said.

Images from the scene on Wednesday showed rescuers covering up the bloated body of a woman who had washed ashore.

It was not clear if any foreigners were on board the ferry or what caused the disaster.

"We’ll be here until they find my brother’s body," said Nurhayati, who was among the hundreds of grief-stricken locals waiting by the shore for news about missing loved ones, and like many Indonesians goes by one name.

"We just want to see his body and take him with us."

Survivor accounts said the boat started shaking as it struggled to navigate strong winds and high waves about halfway into the 40-minute trip from an island in the middle of the lake to shore.

Muslim-majority Indonesia has been celebrating the Islamic festival of Eid since Friday and millions go on holiday during the festivities, with Lake Toba a key destination.

The deadly disaster came days after more than a dozen people were killed in an unrelated maritime accident that underscored Indonesia’s woeful boat safety record.

AFP