Rescuers scoured the ocean for more than 100 people, many of them believed to be university students, still missing Friday after a ferry sank in the Pacific off Papua New Guinea.
So far, 238 survivors have been plucked to safety in a joint rescue operation conducted by PNG and neighbouring Australia after the MV Rabaul Queen sank on Thursday morning.
Australia's Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the ship went down about nine nautical miles (16 kilometres) off the coast and the survivors reached the eastern town of Lae in the early hours of Friday morning.
"Five vessels, with a total of 238 survivors on board, proceeded to Lae last night, with the first vessel arriving shortly after 1:00am (1300 GMT Thursday)," AMSA said.
"The passengers are being transferred to Lae by the port's tug, under the coordination of PNG authorities."
It said three merchant vessels remained on the scene with the search resuming at daylight assisted by two Australian planes and two local helicopters.
PNG-based Rabaul Shipping, the owner of the vessel, said it lost contact with the MV Rabaul Queen while it was travelling between Kimbe and Lae in what was believed to be bad weather.
In a statement, it said there were 350 passengers and 12 crew onboard the Japanese-built vessel. The passengers were PNG locals, many students studying at Lae, the ship's final destination and home to a large university.
The catastrophe comes just months after the town was rocked by PNG's worst air disaster in October which killed 28 people -- most of whom were believed to be parents travelling to graduation ceremonies.
"We are stunned and utterly devastated by what has happened," Rabaul Shipping managing director Peter Sharp said amid reports that the company's office in Kimbe was pelted with rocks by frustrated relatives of passengers.
"We acknowledge that this has caused tremendous suffering. Our condolences go to the loved ones of those affected."
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said local staff of the company in Kimbe had to be evacuated by police to a secret location as scenes turned rowdy with no news filtering through on what had happened.
The company said it remained unclear why the ship sank.
"It's understood that the ferry captain had routine radio contact with another vessel not long before sinking," it said.
"There appeared to be no indications of distress during this communication."
It said they became aware something was wrong early Thursday morning when the ferry failed to appear on a satellite tracking system.
The company alerted AMSA, which subsequently coordinated with PNG's National Maritime Safety Authority and vessels in the area were diverted to the ferry's last known position.
The ferry had travelled the route on a weekly basis for 11 years without incident and underwent a dry dock service in November, Rabaul Shipping added.
Before plying routes in PNG, it operated on shorter runs in Japan, where she carried up to 550 passengers.
"While we are trying to comprehend the terrible nature of the accident, we are also staying focused on helping authorities as the search and rescue operation unfolds," Sharp said.
PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has ordered an immediate investigation.
"We need to bring some safety measures back into this industry," he told reporters.
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