People watch from the rocky shore on Christmas Island during a rescue attempt as a boat breaks up in the background Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010. A wooden boat packed with dozens of asylum seekers smashed apart on cliff-side rocks in heavy seas off an Australian island Wednesday, sending some to their deaths in churning whitewater.
SYDNEY: The number of people killed when a boat packed with asylum seekers was smashed to pieces on rocks at a remote Australian island may never be known, officials said Friday, as the passenger total was uncertain and bodies may be lost to the sea.
The known toll increased to 30 after two more bodies were plucked from the rough waters off Christmas Island where the wooden vessel broke apart Wednesday.
As many as 100 people were believed to be aboard but investigators have so far been unable to get a firm number and may never do so, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.
Forty-two people were rescued soon after the crash. The bodies recovered included a man and a boy aged about 11 found by divers Thursday near the submerged wreck. Other bodies may have drifted out into the Indian Ocean or been sent to the depths.
"We do need to face the grim reality that it is becoming increasingly unlikely and an increasingly remote possibility that survivors will be found at this stage," Gillard told reporters.
Navy, police and customs officials continued searching Friday, but, "The sad reality is we are now looking at more a recovery of bodies operation than a search for survivors," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Thirteen men, nine women and eight children — including four infants — were known dead.
The passengers of Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish origin were taking a perilous journey hundreds of refugees try every year. Most leave poor, war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan and stop in Indonesia, where they crowd onto barely seaworthy boats with few provisions to try to reach Australia.
Seven victims in Wednesday's crash were related to a man who is being detained on Christmas Island after earlier making the sea journey. Local government leader Gordon Thomson said Friday the man had been told his wife, uncle and "several other close relatives" were among the dead.
The survivors comprise 25 men, eight women and nine children. About two dozen are in hospitals, and the others were taken to an immigration detention center on the island.
Among the survivors were three Indonesians who are suspected people smugglers, who were being interviewed by police.
Even so, Gillard said it was still unclear two days after the tragedy how many people had been aboard the boat. "We may never know that number with precision," she said.
The tragedy shocked Australia, where an often divisive debate has raged about how a rising number of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat should be handled. One side argues the boat people are illegal immigrants who should be turned back, while the other says they deserve greater compassion.
Past refugee attempts to reach Australia have also been fatal.
In 2001, a boat carry mostly Afghans and Iraqis sank and 374 people perished. Two years earlier, a boat believed to be carrying about 100 people disappeared and may have sunk.