Bambang Ervan, a transport ministry spokesman, said: “Preliminary investigations have indicated that the ship may have sunk because passengers piled onto one side … tipping its balance and causing it to roll over.”
Earlier, another transport ministry official in charge of sea transportation, said that at least 15 people were dead, six were unaccounted for while the rest of the 82 passengers and crew had been rescued.
The mayor said that the manifest showed that there were 188 passengers on board, not including children and toddlers travelling with their parents.
However, official manifests are often unreliable on Indonesian passenger ships as it is common for people to sneak on to ferries or bribe crew to let them aboard for less than the price of a ticket.
Tamil said that the ship had been towed back to shore and some survivors were found clinging to the bottom of the vessel.
“Relatives of the dead have come to get the bodies and they get 500,000 rupiah [$55] of compensation,” he said.
Safruddin, a passenger on the ferry, told local ElShinta radio that he had been travelling from his home village to work on Sulawesi after the one-week holiday marking the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan.
“I thought I would die. I managed to get out of the boat… I held on to two pieces of foam and then I passed out. I woke up at the port and I threw up,” he said.
Safruddin said his two-year-old child and wife survived by clinging to wooden planks, and fishermen later rescued them.
Laode Hamdansyah, head of the Indonesian Red Cross in Baubau, said that 40 Red Cross rescuers on three fishing boats, along with two marine police vessels, were searching for more survivors.
Ferries are a principle method of transportation in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with a population of 220 million.
The Acita III accident is the latest in a string of disasters in a country where overcrowding and poorly enforced safety standards are common causes of disasters.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s president, in February called on passenger boat operators to improve safety after scores of people were killed when a ferry caught fire off Jakarta.
In December last year, about 400 people drowned when another ferry sank off Java.