One person is confirmed dead and about a dozen are still missing two days after an overloaded ferry capsized in rough rapids on a remote Borneo river, Malaysian police said Thursday.
The accident happened Tuesday on the Rajang river, Malaysia's longest, deep in the interior of the vast island of Borneo as people travelled for a tribal festival this weekend.
"This morning a corpse was found not far from the accident location. He was a 44-year-old male," said Bakar Anak Sebau, police chief of the town of Belaga.
More than 190 people are reported to have survived the capsizing of the express river ferry, which was massively overloaded. Authorities have said its capacity was around 70.
The distant location of the accident in the interior of the state of Sarawak has hampered rescue efforts and the flow of solid information.
Bakar said about 12 people were still believed missing but the exact number remained unclear due to the lack of a passenger manifest for the vessel.
"As of now, we just can't give a clear number," he said.
The boat was heading downstream from Belaga, full of travellers on the move for the coming weekend's Gawai festival, an annual cultural and religious observance for Borneo tribes.
Authorities want to search the submerged boat for victims or survivors, but have said rescue teams have been thwarted by strong currents and no visibility in the Rajang's fast-moving waters, which are brown with sediment.
Bakar said teams would try to tow the boat to a safer location. An earlier effort to do so failed.
One survivor, John Soon, who managed to scramble out of the sinking boat with his five-year-old son, said his pregnant wife is still missing.
"In all the madness, and people shoving and pushing to get to the exit, I lost hold of her. That was the last I saw of her. I regret not holding on to her much tighter," he was quoted by the New Straits Times as saying.
"I am praying for a miracle even though deep inside, something tells me that the chance of finding my wife alive again is next to impossible."
Local media reported that despite the accident, travellers were still thronging jetties and jumping onto already packed boats, eager to make it home for the festival.
Authorities said they were powerless to stop the overcrowding with too few enforcement officers, The Star newspaper reported.