Thai tour boat tragedy: 37 bodies found amid desperate search for dozens of Chinese tourists missing in sea off Phuket

Chinese tourists make up the biggest number of foreign visitors to Thailand, their numbers surging in recent years, drawn by the growing popularity of the southeast Asian nation’s islands

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2018, 12:43am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 1:42pm

Thai authorities on Friday evening suspended the search for missing tourists who were on a boat that sank during a storm off the southern resort island of Phuket, as the death toll rose to 33, all of them Chinese nationals.

The search for another 23 people still missing will resume at 5am. Saturday, said Prapan Khanprasang, chief of the Phuket Provincial Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Office.

Many of the dead were found drifting face down in the water.

As the seas calmed Friday, divers were transporting the bodies of the dead, including at least one child, from smaller boats to a larger ship taking part in the search effort.

The death toll jumped after the navy sent divers to enter the wreck of the tour boat, which capsized and sank Thursday evening when it was hit by 5-meter (16-foot) -high waves.

It was carrying 105 people, including 93 tourists, 11 crew and one tour guide. At least 12 of the injured were hospitalized.

The accident appeared to be Thai tourism’s biggest disaster in years, and drew sharp attention from the Chinese embassy in Bangkok.

Wu Jun, 28, a passenger, was at the bedside of his wife, Long Hai Ning.

“The skies were clear when we went out, we had no idea the weather could change so fast,” he said.

The pair, who were on their honeymoon, were on different decks as the boat started to list, but both managed to escape.

“I grabbed onto a railing and pulled myself overboard,” he said, adding he feared women and children were among those who were trapped on the bottom deck as the boat went down.

Another boat also overturned off Phuket during the stormy conditions on Thursday afternoon, but all 42 on board were rescued. One fisherman was still missing after being swept from a Thai fishing boat Thursday near Krabi province.

Tourist Police bureau deputy chief, Major General Surachate Hakparn, said in a post on Facebook tour operators had been warned about the severe weather.

“Be careful … nature is not a joke,” Surachate wrote. “The Tourist Police warned businesses in Phuket already to not take boats out from shore, but they violated this order by taking foreign tourists out.”

The accidents occurred as rescuers, also led by Thai navy divers, supported 12 boys and their soccer coach stranded nearly two weeks inside a flooded cave in the country’s far north, and tried to determine how and when to extract them.

Jin Yilin, consul-general of the Chinese embassy in Thailand, said a delegation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry was on the way to Thailand.

“What is imperative is to search for the missing,” a statement from the embassy said on Friday. “We ask the Thai side to mobilise all possible forces and waste no time in searching for the Chinese citizens that are still missing.”

Chinese tourists make up the biggest number of foreign visitors to Thailand, their numbers surging in recent years, drawn by the growing popularity of the southeast Asian nation’s islands.

Visitors to Thailand from China totalled more than 9.8 million people in 2017, constituting the largest share by country of a record 35.38 million foreign tourists in all.

In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said China’s top leaders, including President Xi Jinping, were paying close attention to the incident.

“China expresses gratitude for the active search and rescue efforts made by Thailand,” the spokesman, Lu Kang, told a regular briefing.

Rescue team considers options as rain threatens Thai boys in cave

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand’s military government, expressed his “sympathies and deepest condolences” to the families of the dead.

The government would “exert all efforts to find those still missing and provide support to all survivors of this tragic event,” he said in a statement.

Thai officials were rushing to cope with some of the logistics of the aftermath of the sinking.

At the request of Phuket’s governor, the Phuket Tourist Association was seeking 80 volunteer Chinese language translators to assist the outgoing Chinese passengers at the provincial airport.

Many of the victims had been on group tours, booked in Phuket and China.

The government of the eastern Chinese city of Haining in Zhejiang province said on its official microblog account that it received a distress alert sent by phone text message from the head of the Haining Haipai Furniture Co. Ltd., from Thailand Friday morning.

It said that 37 of the furniture company’s employees and family members had travelled together to Phuket and that on July 5 at around 5pm they encountered the “biggest storm in five years” and they sought the government’s help.

The group had booked their tours to the islands online on their own, said the posting.

A Chinese tour operator based in the central province of Hunan said on its official Sina Weibo account that three travellers it had booked were missing.

Images on Thursday showed rescued people in large rubber life rafts, with fishing boats and churning seas in the background. The survivors were shown being lifted from the rafts and sitting in life jackets amid ropes on the deck of what appears to be a fishing trawler.

Severe weather including heavy rain and winds were forecast until Tuesday. Phuket Governor Norraphat Plodthong said officials would consider whether to ban boats from going to sea during strong winds.

Thursday’s storms had forced 12 boats with 263 passengers in all to stay docked at Racha island, a popular diving spot about an hour’s boat ride from Phuket.

Additional reporting by Reuters