Kiribati ferry survivors had to let children's bodies drift away

A fisherman and his wife who were on board the Kiribati ferry have described how they survived at sea for 11 days after their young children tragically died. 

Exhausted and overcome with grief, Temake Ioane and his wife Ketura Matai are two of just seven people to make it back to land alive after the overloaded ferry broke apart and sank.

Mr Ioane told Newshub about the moment he realised something was terribly wrong with the Butiraoi.

"While we sailed out, the wind was blowing and the waves were crashing. I heard a sound below - the ship was starting to break."

Overloaded with passengers and cargo, the captain continued to drive the wooden catamaran into the waves. 

"I asked the captain to turn back to the island of Nounuti or to let people get off, but he didn't go back," Mr Ioane says. "He just sped up".

Moments later the vessel broke in half, sending 88 passengers and 12 crew members scrambling for two emergency dinghies and a life raft.

Mr Ioane and his wife jumped in with their young children, aged just eight and three.

"We were swimming for our lives."

The three emergency vessels were initially tied together -- overloaded with people, dozens in the water hanging off the sides.

"We only had one bag of coconuts for everyone. They were all gone after two days." 

On the third day at midnight, swells inundated one of the dinghies and it capsized and sank. 

Mr Ioane cut the connecting rope and they drifted away from the others. As days passed, their two children started to become weak in the heat. 

"They were saying, 'Dad can we have an ice block or some coconut?' I told them 'once we get to land I'll get them for you'."

Ms Matai says she tried to be strong for her family.

"I couldn't bear to see my children like that. I held them and told them they'd be okay."

But, tragically, they weren't.

"Our three-year-old passed away first," Mr Ioane says.

"But we didn't want to leave his body out there. We held onto his body and cried, but as more time passed we had to let his body go in the water."  

As the days dragged on, more people succumbed to the heat. The pair started drinking small amounts of seawater.

"We got a bucket of water and put it under the sun. It was still salty, but at least we had something running down our throat." 

They hoped that by some miracle they would survive.

"We prayed every single day that someone would come and get us."

After 11 days at sea, their prayers were answered as the NZ Defence force plane flew overhead.

Mr Ioane says the man who chose not to turn the boat around is responsible for the deaths of 93 people.  

"All I can say is we blame the captain. Our lives were in his hands." 

In a tragic twist, just days before the rescue a man in the dinghy became so delirious from the heat he jumped overboard, saying he was going to buy groceries. He was never seen again. 

Mr Ioane says he kept telling everyone else on board they'd make and splashed them with water to keep them awake. He says he'll be forever grateful to New Zealand for coming to their aid and saving their lives. 



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