By Hans Lee
SYDNEY (Reuters) - An overloaded ferry that sank near the Pacific island archipelago of Kiribati last year, killing 95 people, was not allowed to carry passengers in the open sea, and had twice run aground before its fateful journey, an inquiry has found.
Only five passengers and two crew members of 102 aboard survived the sinking of the MV Butiraoi ferry in January 2018, after many died of thirst and hunger while adrift for over a week in a lifeboat in the central Pacific Ocean.
The report commissioned by the government detailed a litany of failings that caused the tragedy, including the ferry's departure without notifying authorities.
This omission meant it was several days before authorities realised the catamaran was missing and organised a search effort.
"With hardly any food and water, the survivors began to perish," investigators said in the report, ordered by the office of Kiribati's president.
The MV Butiraoi departed the Kiribati island of Nonouti, about 3,000 km (1,864 miles) southwest of Hawaii, on its way to Kiribati's capital Tarawa, 250 km (155 miles) away on Jan. 18.
The vessel, loaded with almost 30 tonnes of dried coconut kernels called copra and 35 empty fuel drums, was not licensed to carry passengers in the open ocean.
The crew had also been drinking alcohol, the investigators found.
Facing strong winds and 2.5-metre (8.2-ft) waves, the boat broke apart and capsized two hours after departure.
The catamaran had been poorly maintained, according to the report, and had run aground previously, likely damaging its structure.
Two life rafts carrying a total of 50 people were launched but one became unusable after a puncture. As passengers reached for the one working lifeboat, its floor "failed" as well, the commission said.
Others clung to the capsized hull of the ferry.
Authorities did not commission a search-and-rescue operation until Jan. 26 when the catamaran's arrival in Tarawa became clearly overdue.
That operation included help from U.S., Australian and New Zealand aircraft and lasted for six days.
(Reporting by Hans Lee in Sydney; Editing by Jonathan Barrett and Karishma Singh)