BANTING, Malaysia – Malaysian rescuers intensified a search Thursday for 26 people who remained missing after an overcrowded wooden boat carrying Indonesians home in a storm sank in choppy seas. Nine people died and at least 62 people survived.
The boat capsized in the early hours Wednesday about 2 nautical miles (3.7 kilometres) from shore on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur while trying to leave Malaysia illegally for Aceh province in Indonesia.
Maritime agency official Mohamad Hambali Yaakup said more vessels and divers were deployed in the search Thursday. A ship, 24 boats and a helicopter with some 160 staff from the maritime agency, police and the fire department were scouring the area, he said.
Tens of thousands of Indonesians work without legal permits in plantations and other industries in Malaysia, and they travel between the countries by crossing the narrow Strait of Malacca, often in poorly equipped boats.
Indonesian Ambassador Herman Prayitno told local media late Wednesday that the immigrants had paid up to RM1,200 ($373) each for the trip back to Indonesia ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He said the boat was overloaded.
“It is a sad tragedy,” he said. “Many of them were in the country illegally as their tourist visas had expired and they had overstayed. They were finding work here but were on their way back to Indonesia for Ramadan.”
Hambali said survivors were rescued at sea and found on land after swimming to safety. They included 12 women and a child. A woman and eight men were among the dead, he added.
The survivors were being questioned by police and immigration authorities, and Indonesian embassy officials were also on the scene. A rescue department photo showed about two dozen survivors, who had little belongings with them, sitting outside a building.
Rescuers were seen recovering a body from the sea, laying the dead onto a boat desk and carrying a body on land in Pantai Kelanang, near the sinking.
Hambali said authorities were still investigating why the boat sank, but rough seas and overcrowding could have been factors. It could also have hit by an object as some survivors claimed the boat was leaking, he said.
He said chances of survival for more than 24 hours without a life vest were very slim.
The boat’s capacity was 50-60 people, but it was believed to be carrying 97. Hambali said some survivors may have swum to shore and gone into hiding.
Such incidents are common in Malaysia, which has up to 2 million Indonesian migrants.
Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.