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Kiribati ferry sinking survivors rescued after drifting in Pacific for four days

Rescuers have found seven survivors from a ferry that sank more than a week ago near the remote Pacific nation of Kiribati.

The six adults and unconscious baby had been among 50 people on the ferry travelling between two of Kiribati’s islands, about 2,500 miles from New Zealand.

They had scrambled onto a wooden life raft after the ferry sank but, with very little time to prepare, found themselves without drinking water.

They also had nothing they could use to shelter themselves from the blazing summer sun.

After drifting in the Pacific Ocean for four days, they were found by an Orion plane from the New Zealand Defence Force early on Sunday local time.

At that point, they were about 112 miles from the nearest major island.

The plane’s crew dropped supplies to the group, including food, water and a radio.

A nearby fishing boat then pulled the group from the life raft.

Seven people in a dinghy were found by the NZ Defence Force after a ferry capsized near Kiribati. Here they are rescued by a fishing vessel. Pic: NZ Defence Force
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After the survivors were found, a fishing vessel was diverted to pick them up. Pic: NZ Defence Force

The Orion searched for other survivors but New Zealand Defence Force Air commodore Darryn Webb said that, while there was a lot of debris near the dinghy, there was no sign of anyone else.

“Our heart goes out to the baby and to all those remaining of the 50-plus people,” he said.

Rescue workers will regroup and meet the seven survivors before deciding whether to continue searching.

Questions are being asked as to why it took so long for Fiji – whose authorities coordinated the search – to request help from New Zealand, the nearest major country.

The 57ft ferry left Nonouti Island for South Tarawa on 18 January for a journey that was meant to take two days.

Seven people in a dinghy were found by the NZ Defence Force after a ferry capsized near Kiribati. Here they are rescued by a fishing vessel. Pic: NZ Defence Force
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The life raft was spotted by a New Zealand military plane. Pic: NZ Defence Force

But New Zealand rescuers were not told the ferry was missing until late on Friday – eight days after its departure.

Mr Webb said a Kiribati plane had earlier searched for the ferry but it did not have sophisticated radar equipment.

It is not clear what caused the ferry to capsize, with Mr Ashby saying it was possible that recent repairs to its propeller shaft may have contributed to navigation problems.

It is also not clear exactly when the ferry sank, but any navigation problems could have meant it went off course for days beforehand.

Kiribati is a nation of 33 atolls that is home to about 108,000 people. It is also one of the nations most at risk from rising sea levels.

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