The Thai government is threatening legal action against the owner and captain of a dive boat that sank off Phuket on Thursday for heading out to sea despite storm warnings. Over 50 people are believed to have perished, most of them Chinese tourists.
About 40 bodies were reportedly recovered on Friday, mostly from the sunken boat, Thai officials said on Friday.
Some 49 people had been rescued, but 16 passengers and crew of the ‘Phoenix’ were still missing. The vessel, which was carrying 93 tourists, plus 12 crew and tour guides, from Koh Racha to Chalong pier when it was hit by four-to-five-meter waves whipped up by a storm.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said the captain and owner of the Phoenix would be held responsible for the accident. He said the ill-fated boat left for Racha Island despite a weather warning by the Meteorological Department and a ban on boats leaving the dock by marine officials.
“I’ve checked with them – why they took the boat out to the sea and they said there was no strong wind,” Prawit, the defense minister, was reported to have said. “But the Meteorological Department had warned against leaving shore from July 4 to 6 and they would not listen.”
Families of the victims will receive 300,000 baht (US$9,000) each from the Thai government, plus a further 1 million baht from the boat company’s insurer, media outlets have said.
The captain of the boat, Smoking Boontham, said it started taking water a couple of miles of Koh Hei and he ordered everyone to put on life jackets and alerted nearby vessels.
“Two life rafts were deployed while nearby fishing boats were contacted for help. The boat sank very quickly. We did our best to keep the passengers calm and keep them safe during the chaos,” he told The Thaiger news-site.
“51 of us were rescued by Pattana 11 and 12 fishing boats. Other passengers, I am not sure if they have been rescued by other boats as it was too dark and the weather conditions were very poor.”
The body of one Chinese holidaymaker was pulled from the sea on Thursday evening, AFP reported, and a further seven were recovered early on Friday. Navy divers have also been sent to look for the boat, which sank in water about 40 meters deep.
“I assume they are trapped inside the boat… but I wish some of them have survived,” Phuket governor Noraphat Plodthong told the media. “I have not yet received any reports of people floating in the sea.”
Helicopters, police and fishing boats were deployed early on Friday as the rescue mission restarted.
“Navy divers, frogmen and marine police divers have already been sent to the scene,” Rear Admiral Charoenphon Khumrasee, deputy commander of the Thai Navy in the southern region told reporters.
Skippers may have ignored weather warning
The Phoenix was among several boats that appeared to ignore a severe weather warning in place since Wednesday on taking tourists on day-trips to the islands that dot the seas off Phuket.
Another vessel, the Senerita, also sank in the storm. However, two people missing from that boat were found off Koh Kai early on Friday.
Two Russians on a jet-ski also had to be rescued by a local fishing vessel. Six other vessels carrying more than 130 people opted not to venture out in the bad weather, The Thaiger reported.
Yesterday’s storm was severe. Many flights were delayed or diverted by controllers at Phuket Airport, and parts of the town suffered blackouts.
A Chinese consular official arrived at the operations center in Phuket to monitor the rescue effort. The island is a magnet for overseas visitors, including Western sun-seekers and huge numbers of Chinese tourists who make up the bulk of the 35 million people expected to visit the kingdom this year.
However, the country has a poor health and safety record and accidents are common on its roads and busy waterways, especially in tourist areas and during the wet season now underway.
– with reporting by AFP