Navy ships searched into the night Saturday for survivors from a crowded passenger ferry that sank in stormy weather off Indonesia's Java island, leaving more than 500 people missing, officials said.
Nearly 24 hours after the ship went down, just 59 survivors had been pulled from the raging seas, raising fears that the sinking will prove one of Indonesia's worst maritime disasters in recent history.
Witnesses, however, reported seeing lifeboats carrying more survivors, the transport minister said, and one person on board said most people had time to don life jackets. No bodies had been recovered.
Survivors told of how panicked passengers on the Senopati Nusantara ferry scrambled for life jackets as the boat _ pounded by heavy waves for more than 10 hours _ capsized just before midnight on Friday.
"The crew kept saying 'relax, relax' but it was clear the ship was not stable," Irfan Setiawan said on Metro TV.
"It suddenly veered to one side, and the TV and fridges fell over."
Setiawan said he was hit by a piece of debris and sank with the ship, but fought his way to the surface and climbed into a lifeboat with about 30 others.
Others clung on to pieces of wood or managed to swim to nearby islands.
Another survivor, Budi Susilo, said he saw three people drown after losing their grip on an overturned raft.
"We told them to hold on, but they ran out of energy," he told reporters after arriving at a port on Java island late Saturday.
Seasonal storms have wreaked havoc across Indonesia in recent days, unleashing flash floods and landslides that have killed more than 145 people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes on Sumatra island.
The Senopati Nusantara had been on the final leg of a 48-hour journey to Java from the island of Borneo when waves of up to 5 meters (16 feet ) high crashed over its deck, said Slamet Bustam, an official at Semarang port, the ferry's destination.
"We're afraid many have died," Bustam said.
He and other officials declined to say whether the missing were feared dead.
Water temperatures in tropical Indonesia are between 20 degrees Centigrade to 32 degrees centigrade (72 Fahrenheit to 84 Fahrenheit), and people have been known to survive days at sea.
Four naval ships, several other vessels and at least two aircraft were scouring the area Saturday, but poor visibility and storm seas hindered their search.
Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa said late Saturday, after talks with rescue officials, that 638 passengers and crew had been aboard the vessel, and that 59 had been rescued.
The Senopati Nusantara was a 2,117 gross tonnage car ferry that was built in Japan in 1990 and had a capacity of 850 passengers, officials said.
Radjasa and the Semarang port administrator both said the vessel was in good condition when it set sail. They said bad weather was the likely cause of the accident, but did not speculate further.
He said that two navy vessels would continue searching through the night, and that fisherman had reported seeing several lifeboats.
"There is still hope," Radjasa told reporters.
Earlier, officials and media reports put the number on board at more than 800.
Ships in Indonesia often carry far more passengers than recorded, making it difficult for authorities to know how many people are involved in such mishaps.
The ferry ran into trouble 40 kilometers (24 miles) off Mandalika island, about 30 kilometers (190 miles) northeast of the capital, Jakarta, while en route to Semarang in Central Java from Kumai on Indonesia's part of Borneo island.
In a final radio contact, the captain had told port authorities that the ship was severely damaged and capsizing, said local navy commander Col. Yan Simamora.
"We all just prayed as the waves got higher," said another passenger, Cholid, who survived by clinging to wooden planks.
"I was going upstairs to try to help my daughter, but the ship suddenly broke up and I was thrown out. I lost her," said Cholid, who gave only a single name.
Worried family members gathered at the main office of ferry operator PT Prima Fista in Semarang, weeping and demanding details about the fate of their loved ones.
"I am waiting for my mother, auntie, sister and nephew, who were on their way to celebrate New Year's Eve at my house," said Yulis, 25.
Ferries are a main mode of transportation in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with 220 million people. Overcrowding and poorly enforced safety standards mean accidents are common.
On Thursday, another ferry carrying about 100 people capsized in bad weather off the coast of Sumatra in northwestern Indonesia, leaving three dead and another 26 missing presumed to have perished.
In 2000, almost 500 people died when a ferry carrying Christians fleeing religious violence in the eastern Maluku islands capsized. A year later, 350 were killed when a boat carrying asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan sank after setting sail from Java to Australia.