KOTA KINABALU • A trip to a tropical island in the South China Sea seemed like an idyllic way to usher in the Chinese New Year for Ms Fan Li Xia.
However, that holiday turned into a nightmare for the 40-year-old from China when the boat she and a group of friends were in suddenly started listing, and then sank as they were heading to Pulau Mengalum, about 56km off Sabah's capital of Kota Kinabalu.
"I was really looking forward to spending time on the island," Ms Fan told reporters.
The trip ended up as a 32-hour nightmare - one that took them from the searing heat of the day to the windy, icy cold waters of the South China Sea at night.
The boat was carrying 27 tourists from China and three crewmen last Saturday when it sank at around 10am, an hour into the journey.
Three tourists died. Four more are missing, along with one crew member.
HELPLESS AT SEA
However, after about a day, I started to lose hope of ever being rescued. I thought we were all going to die in the sea.
SURVIVOR FAN LI XIA
Two crewman and 20 of the visitors were plucked out of the sea some 32 hours later on Sunday evening, about 50km south of Pulau Mengalum. The Malaysian and Bruneian authorities were yesterday still combing the seas for the five missing victims.
"The boat started tilting backwards and water starting filling in fast... Our guide and boatman told us to jump into the sea," said Ms Fan at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu on Monday.
Ms Fan is being treated for severe sunburn, along with the others who were rescued.
After the boat sank, the passengers gathered in the water and tied themselves to one another using the ropes on their life jackets, said Ms Fan. She said the group tried to keep their spirits up by giving one another encouragement and talking about what they would do after their ordeal was over.
"However, after about a day, I started to lose hope of ever being rescued. I thought we were all going to die in the sea," she said.
Ms Fan said one of her friends, a man, became unconscious while they were adrift in the water.
"We tried holding on to him at first. Then, we too got tired so we had to let him go. There seemed to be no hope for us to be rescued," she recalled.
Just when she thought all was lost and they were doomed, several fishing boats approached them at around 7pm on Sunday, and Ms Fan felt relief. "If we were found any later, I don't think I would have survived," she said.
The fishermen pulled the survivors on board their vessel and gave them water. Ms Fan said many of them were so severely sunburnt that their skin peeled off. "There was a lot of blood in the fishing boat after we were rescued," she said.
Meanwhile, another survivor said she was so desperate that she had to quench her thirst by drinking her urine.
"All I knew was that I had to survive by any means," said the woman, who declined to be named.
As the burning sun last Saturday afternoon turned into night, the survivors at first heaved a sigh of relief.
However, the water soon turned freezing cold and strong winds began to blow.
"We were shivering in the water," added the woman.
They also had to ward off fish that tried to bite them during the night.
Most of the survivors were placed in the wards of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu, while those who were in more serious condition were kept in individual rooms.
Officials at the hospital said many of the survivors were still traumatised and disoriented from their ordeal.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK