Information from the ferry company suggested that there were about 350 aboard the boat when it sunk.
(CNN) — Rescuers plucked more than 200 survivors from the sea after a passenger ship sank off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said Thursday.
The Australian authorities have been helping Papua New Guinea with rescue efforts after the ship, the MV Rabaul Queen, sank about 16 kilometers (10 miles) off Cape Fortification in the Vitiaz Strait after getting into trouble early Thursday.
After an alert was sent out, boats and helicopters rushed to the scene to try to save scores of people left adrift at sea by the sinking.
Rescuers have so far recovered 238 people, said Jo Meehan of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Australia is Papua New Guinea’s closest neighbor bar Indonesia, with which it shares a border.
Information from the ferry company suggested that there were about 350 aboard the boat when it sank, said Carly Lusk, a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Hundreds rescued from ferry sinking
Ferry sinks off Papua New Guinea
Hundreds rescued from sunken ferry
“I’m pleased that a large number of people have been rescued,” said Kevin Rudd, the Australian foreign minister. “We’re deeply concerned about those who are still missing.”
Rudd said he didn’t have any information on the precise number of people missing or on the nationalities of the passengers aboard the ship.
“This is a difficult operating environment,” he said. “We are doing everything within our power.”
The search operation is being coordinated from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra.
The Rabaul Queen was ferrying passengers from the town of Kimbe on New Britain Island to the port of Lae on the Papua New Guinea mainland when it got into difficulty.
Jurgen Ruh, the chief executive of Manolos Aviation Ltd. in Lae, was in one of the helicopters that helped with the rescue effort.
“I could see the survivors on the debris,” he said, noting that the passenger ship had sunk completely by the time he reached the scene.
There were about 10 life rafts visible, each with roughly 10 people on them, the first time his helicopter flew overhead, he said. However, when the helicopter returned to the area after refueling, no more survivors were spotted.
The weather was likely to be a contributing factor in the ferry’s sinking, Ruh said, as there were high winds at the time in what is a notorious area.
The ferry may have been full to capacity because children return to school at this time of year, he added.
Ruh said the alert had been raised early, enabling nearby ships to head quickly to the area to help with rescue efforts. Aircraft had also been sent from Australia, he said.
As of 7:45 p.m. local time (4:45 a.m. ET), eight merchant vessels remained on the scene, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in an online statement. Five of those vessels picked up survivors and were expected to return to the port of Lae overnight.
Air and surface searches are expected to resume Friday morning, the statement said. Strong winds are reported from the scene, with a 5-meter (16-foot) sea swell.
Papua New Guinea had a population of 6.7 million in 2010, the U.S. State Department says, with about 190,000 people living in Lae. Most of the population is scattered in small settlements across the state’s many islands.
The largely Christian country is part of the Commonwealth and has Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. The bulk of the estimated 2,000 American residents in Papua, New Guinea are missionaries and their families, the State Department says.