At least 42 people were confirmed dead and 14 others remained missing after two boats capsized in a storm off southern Thailand’s Phuket island, Thai officials said on Saturday.
Phuket Governor Norraphat Plodthong told Xinhua that the Thai authorities found five bodies in the “Phoenix” tourist boat sunk some 30 to 40 meters under water Saturday morning, and they, along with two Chinese rescue teams, found another three in the boat Saturday afternoon.
Later, the Phuket government added that divers actually found nine bodies, but it was difficult to move the ninth body pressed by the sunken boat to the seabed.
Rear Admiral Charoenphol Koomrasee, deputy commander of the Third Fleet of the Royal Thai Navy, said that with 17 professional divers from the Chinese rescue teams joining, they scoured the wreckage of “Phoenix” on Saturday.
“After clearing the wreckage to make sure there is no one trapped inside anymore… we will pay more attention to the surface,” Charoenphol said.
The deputy commander added that they were racing against the clock to find those who were still unaccounted for and they had dispatched three helicopters, eight ships and around 800 rescuers, including divers, for the 24-hour search.
Two boats carrying over 130 foreign tourists, mainly Chinese, capsized in high tides and strong winds off the southern Thai resort island of Phuket on Thursday afternoon.
All the victims were from the boat “Phoenix,” while all 42 people onboard the boat “Serenata” were rescued and safe.
Phuket Governor Norraphat said the Thai government had set up service counters in Phuket Airport to assist relatives of the victims who were coming to Phuket.
For the injured tourists, the Thai government would cover all their medical expenses. Relatives of each of the deceased tourist would get some 1.4 million baht (42,200 U.S. dollars) as compensation based on the boat’s insurance and Thai laws, he said.
Chinese Ambassador Lyu Jian, who visited injured Chinese tourists in a local hospital on Saturday, called on Thai authorities to quickly mobilize an intensive search for the missing and “tend and make appropriate arrangements for the rescued Chinese tourists, treat and cure the injured and receive family members of the Chinese tourists involved.”
According to the Chinese Consulate-General in Songkhla, 78 Chinese tourists have been rescued following the tragic accident.
“The boat was listing very badly,” said a Chinese survivor with his surname Huang who was aboard the “Phoenix.”
The tourist boat capsized soon after water began to pour into the vessel, recalled Huang, adding that the crew members released a life raft after passengers were swept into the sea.
“We were helpless at that time,” said another Chinese man with the surname of Lin while recalling the last seconds on the capsized “Phoenix.”
“I was shivering when rains lashed me and I felt very cold when floating in the sea,” he said. The tour guide asked the passengers to wear life jackets before the boat overturned, Lin added.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Saturday expressed his “sympathies and deepest condolences” to the bereaved families.
Prayut said the government would exert all efforts to find those still missing and provide support to all survivors of this tragic event as soon as possible.
The prime minister ordered the creation of a command center for the rescue operation in Phuket. He also ordered departments and agencies involved to launch an investigation into the accident and identify those responsible for the tragedy.
In order to provide the public with clear and accurate information, regular briefings will be held in the command center.
The prime minister urged the public not to circulate photos of the victims to protect their privacy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese embassy and consulates in Thailand to take greater measures in the rescue operation, and urged the Thai government and agencies to spare no efforts in search and rescue, and provide proper medical treatment for the injured.
A Chinese government joint working group arrived in Phuket Friday night and held the first joint meeting with the Thai side on the same day.