The ferry carrying 139 passengers went down on Tuesday off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The passengers trapped on the ferry overnight were rescued but it is unclear if any were still missing.

A combination picture shows survivors of KM Lestari Maju boat in the waters of Selayar island, South Sulawesi province, Indonesia, July 3, 2018.
A combination picture shows survivors of KM Lestari Maju boat in the waters of Selayar island, South Sulawesi province, Indonesia, July 3, 2018. (Reuters)

Passengers trapped for a night on a stricken ferry off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi were rescued early on Wednesday, an official said, as the death toll rose to 31.

The Sulawesi ferry, with 139 passengers aboard according to its manifest, began sinking on Tuesday afternoon in rough seas.

In a desperate bid to save lives, the vessel's captain steered it toward shore, grounding it between 200-300 meters from land.

Rescue operation on

Indonesia's director-general of sea transportation, Agus Purnomo, said in a statement that people trapped on the ferry overnight were rescued.

He didn't specify how many but said the captain and the boat owner were the last two people to leave the vessel.

The national search and rescue agency, however, said the boat had been carrying 164 passengers and crew. 

Three passengers were missing but 130 had been rescued, a transport ministry official said.

The ferry was also carrying 48 vehicles when it began taking on water in bad weather.

Photos released by the agency on Tuesday showed passengers clinging to the listing vessel as others descended into the heavy seas using ropes hung over its side.
Photos released by the agency on Tuesday showed passengers clinging to the listing vessel as others descended into the heavy seas using ropes hung over its side. (Reuters)

The latest in a succession of boat tragedies in Indonesia began on the same day that officials called off a search for 164 people presumed drowned when a wooden ferry sank on June 18 in a deep volcanic crater lake on the island of Sumatra.

Photos released by the authorities on Tuesday showed passengers clinging to the listing vessel as others descended into the heavy seas using ropes hung over its side. 

Most appeared to be wearing lifejackets.

Captain hailed

Purnomo credited the captain's actions with helping to save lives.

"The captain ran it onto a reef so it wouldn't sink and to make the evacuation of passengers easier," he said.

"The captain and the owner of the ship were the last two people to come down from the passenger ship," Purnomo added.

The 48.5-metre-long vessel, carrying several dozen vehicles including a bus and trucks, was on its way to Selayar island, just south of the main Sulawesi island, from the port of Bira when it began taking on water.

Ferry tragedies are common in Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with weak enforcement of safety regulations often to blame.

The Lake Toba sinking two weeks ago was the worst in about a decade.

Source: Reuters