January 21

This Day in History

Disaster

Jan 21, 1996:

Ferry sinks off Indonesian coast

On this day in 1996, an overloaded ferry sinks in an unexpected storm off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, killing 340 people.

The 555-ton Gurita was typically used to ferry passengers between Indonesia's islands. On January 21, it was scheduled to make the short trip from Jakarta to Sabang, which is in northern Indonesia on the island of Weh. Although exact numbers are impossible to determine, approximately 400 people were on board when the ship left Jakarta, well in excess of the Gurita's official capacity.

While there is no indication that the excess passengers contributed to the Gurita's troubles when it encountered a strong storm just six miles from Sabang, the overload did exacerbate the disaster. As the ship began to sway and lurch violently, people began to panic and fight over life jackets, as there were not enough for everyone on board.

Margaret Crotty, an employee of Save the Children in Indonesia who was a passenger on the ferry, later reported that she and others were forced to jump ship without a life jacket. She survived by fashioning her pants into a floatation device and witnessed the few rafts that made it into the water refuse to pull up survivors from the water for fear of overcrowding the rafts.

The Gurita sank quickly, and the surrounding waters quickly filled with bodies. Sharks then preyed on the bodies of the dead and those still living. Crotty stayed afloat for 16 hours before she was able to make her way to a lighthouse. She was one of only 47 survivors. The bodies of most of the victims were never recovered.

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