More than 40 years have passed since the Indonesian ferry Tampomas II burned and sank in the Java Sea, leading to death of hundreds of people and claiming the title of Indonesia’s worst ship disaster at that time and one of the deadliest maritime accidents until today.
Accident details: At a glance
- Type of accident: Fire, explosion and sinking
- Vessel(s) involved: Tampomas II (RoRo ferry)
- Date: 27 January 1981
- Place: Java Sea, Indonesia
- Fatalities: Between 431-666 people
- Pollution: No
On the evening of 24 January 1981, the Indonesian RoRo car and passenger ferry Tamponas II departed the port of Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta, heading to Celebes port city of Ujung Pandang, with a total of 1,054 passengers, 82 crew members and 200 cars onboard. One day into the voyage, a fire erupted in the engine room, reportedly caused from leaking fuel. The crew unsuccessfully tried to contain the fire, but the open deck doors made the fire grow larger in the engine compartment.
A consequent blackout and emergency generator failure made any effort to extinguish the fire impossible, while the fuel inside the carried vehicles caused the fire to spread quickly. Thirty minutes after the fire started, an evacuation was ordered, but there were only six lifeboats onboard, each with a capacity of 50 people. Hundreds of passengers jumped into the sea, who were reportedly rescued by Good Samaritan ships that came in the following hours.
In the morning of 26 January, a heavy rain made the fire to spread further to the engine room, where there was fuel, leading to an explosion in the next day. The explosion made the flooding faster and the vessel developed a 45° list. Eventually, in the noon of 27 January and 30 hours after the fire erupted, the ship sank to the bottom of the Java Sea, along with 288 people onboard.
An estimated 431 people reportedly perished in the disaster and 753 were rescued, but other reports say the death toll is higher -up to 666- because there were many stowaways onboard. The KM Sangihe, the first ship that went for help, picked up 149 people. Three other rescue vessels, including two Indonesian minesweepers, picked up the rest of the survivors, who included 29 crew members from the sunken ship.
Although an investigation report is not publicly available, there were several red flags in the ship’s operation that were associated with the tragedy. On the day of the accident, the starting point for the ignition of the fire was allegedly cigarette butts meeting an engine fuel leak. Local media reports indicated poor compliance with smoking ban as main cause of the fire.
In addition, the reports say the crew showed incompetence during the evacuation process, as none of them directed passengers to the lifeboats and some of them even lowered the lifeboats for themselves. Local media also attributed the death toll to the crew’s poor understanding on how to use safety equipment. For example, it was later discovered that life jackets could not be used for ordinary passengers and the VHF that was supposed to be in the ship was not in place.
The Tampomas disaster is one of the many ferry incidents in Indonesia, a vast archipelago. The investigation was not seen as providing meaningful results, with the crew being blamed for everything that went wrong on that day. For example, some crew members received administrative sanctions by the court later over poor compliance with safety standards.
However, it was known that, while several malfunctions were indicated before the ship starts operations, the vessel was still used for a busy route. Once purchased by the national passenger shipping company, the ship was assigned to two particularly busy routes, the Jakarta-Padang and Jakarta-Ujung Pandang, despite being already 10 years old. Once in port, the vessel had only a four-hour break before sailing again, while routine maintenance was substandard, according to reports at the time. During its maiden voyage already, in June 1980, the engine broke down several times, which caused concerns in some members of the House of Representatives who were invited to join the trip, but it is unknown if something was done. It was also reported that the ship did not have a smoke detection system on the day of the accident.
Poor maritime safety standards in Indonesia are a key area of concern until today. It was in June 2018 when the country was shaken by three deadly ferry sinkings just in one month -including the Sinar Bangun in Lake Toba with over 160 people dead, a boat off Makassar on Sulawesi island with 13 dead, and a speedboat off South Sumatra, with at least two dead. Ferry accidents are common especially during the Islamic holiday of Eid, when millions make the annual journey by land, sea, and air to their hometowns after the holy fasting month of Ramadan. It could be argued that the frequency of such events in the country shows that action is required in a government level. According to maritime security expert, Siswanto Rusdi, as quoted by DW, a key issue is that local governments in the country does not have sufficient funds or human resources to ensure maritime safety standards are applied.