Thai rescuers yesterday recounted frantic efforts to pluck terrified survivors from the sea after a crowded tourist ferry sank, killing six people, including three foreigners, as police searched for the boat’s captain.
The tragedy raised new questions about safety standards in the kingdom, which drew a record 22 million tourists last year, but is struggling to shake off a reputation for lax regulation.
Three Thais, a Hong Konger and two other unidentified foreigners were among the dead, according to officials in the resort of Pattaya, about 150km southeast of Bangkok.
The double-decker ferry sank on Sunday near Koh Larn, a small island popular with day-trippers from Pattaya.
“The boat went down in minutes. I saw people — some with life jackets, some without — in the water. One man was holding on to a gas cylinder. There was a body face down in the water. They were all panicking, shouting for help,” said a local dive guide who was one of the first on the scene.
“We pulled 60 people from the water, including a Russian boy. We gave him CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation], but he was in a very bad way,” she said, asking not to be named.
Police said that apart from the six dead, all of the 150 to 200 other passengers — including many Russians — were believed to have been rescued, of which 19 were injured.
“We don’t expect to find any more dead. One Russian boy is seriously ill in intensive care,” Pattaya police chief Colonel Suwarn Chiewnawintawat said.
“The captain ran away. We will issue an arrest warrant for him,” Chiewnawintawat added. “Divers will recover the boat today.”
Stunned tourists were seen being led to safety on shore on Sunday where they were met by dozens of ambulances along Pattaya’s neon-lit beachfront. Medics performed emergency first aid on injured passengers.
“We still don’t know the reason for the accident. I am not sure if there are more dead or not, because we don’t know how many people were on the boat,” Thai rescue diver Suttipong Boonmachai said.
A boat captain who witnessed the tragedy recounted throwing life jackets to passengers in the water.
“I saw 100 people, most of them foreigners, in the water,” he said. “I threw 50 life jackets into the water. There was one man, he was not breathing. We pulled him out of the water.”
On Pattaya’s main pier it was business as usual yesterday for the operators of double-decker ferries.
“After an accident like this the boats should be grounded for checks, but today they are all running,” a European working in the town’s marine tourism industry said. “The boats are very old. There’s no maintenance. They are always overcrowded ... there’s no head count.”