(Recasts with transport minister)
By Yusuf Ahmad
PARE-PARE, Indonesia, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Nearly 250 people remained missing after an Indonesian ferry sank in heavy seas at the weekend, officials said on Monday, as bad weather hampered rescue efforts.
Transport Minister Jusman Syafi’i Djamal told a news conference that a preliminary investigation showed the boat was hit by waves causing it to capsize.
He said that 22 survivors had been found so far, while 245 were missing, the latest ferry disaster to hit the country. "We will investigate thoroughly why the captain decided to go," the minister said, adding that there had been warnings about bad weather but that conditions at the port before departure appeared clear.
The ferry with 250 passengers and 17 crew was travelling from Pare-Pare on the west coast of Sulawesi to the city of Samarinda on Indonesia’s side of Borneo island when it ran into bad weather.
An official on the island of Sulawesi quoted survivors as saying the ferry rolled over and sank after being hit by waves of more than 5 metres (16 feet) in the early hours of Sunday.
One survivor, Daeng Gassing, who spoke as several sobbing relatives comforted him, said that he had managed to scramble onto a life raft after clinging to a piece of wood and had pulled to safety five others but his son and father-in-law were missing.
"I grabbed my son on my back and swam to a piece of wood, but my son disappeared after being hit by a big wave," he said.
Rustam Pakaya, head of the health ministry’s crisis centre, said on Monday that six deaths had been confirmed in the accident by Sunday evening.
"There is a greater possibility that many more died than we expected because it happened when they were sleeping," Taufik Bulu, head of maritime safety in the port of Pare-Pare, said by telephone.
The ship’s captain, who flung himself into the sea, told police that the crew could only launch two flares before the vessel went down, Metro TV reported.
Ferries link the main islands in the archipelago, the world’s largest. But accidents are common largely because of under-investment in infrastructure and a tendency to overload the boats.
An official denied the ferry that went down on Sunday had been overloaded.
In Pare-Pare, a Reuters photographer saw about 100 people thronging around a list of passengers.
There had been warnings of heavy seas in several parts of Indonesia in recent days and the transport minister said there had been a tropical cyclone in the area at the time.
Indonesia has come under pressure in recent years to improve its transportation sector following several serious accidents.
On Dec. 30, 2006, a ferry with at least 600 onboard sank in a storm after it travelled between Borneo and Java. About 250 survivors were eventually found in the days after the accident.
A couple of months later at least 42 people were killed when fire broke out aboard a ferry that was heading from Jakarta to Bangka island off Sumatra.
There have also been a series of accidents involving Indonesian airlines, prompting the European Union to ban Indonesian carriers from its airspace.
(Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia in Jakarta; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)