PHUKET • The death toll from a tourist boat accident off the coast of Thailand's Phuket island climbed to 41 yesterday, with 15 people still missing, officials said.
Rescuers had last night suspended a search for those still missing from the sunken vessel, the Phoenix, which capsized in rough waters on Thursday evening with 93 Chinese tourists and 12 Thai crew and tour guides on board. The accident is one of Thailand's worst in recent history.
So far, 49 people have been rescued, officials said.
Earlier in the day, the authorities said a hospital morgue in Phuket was running out of space and called on donors to help provide freezers for the bodies.
Many of the dead had been found drifting in the sea, still wearing life jackets, several kilometres from where the triple-decker Phoenix went down after being hit by 5m-high waves in a storm.
Ambulances unloaded bodies at a hospital on Phuket's east coast where most of the casualties had been taken, while hospital staff escorted visibly distressed family members to a waiting room.
The hospital was storing some bodies in a makeshift morgue built from two refrigerated containers, a reporter at the site said.
"Urgent! The Chinese embassy is calling for 40 freezers," the Thai government said in an appeal, urging potential donors to contact the hospital. Similar calls figured on Chinese social media.
About 20 freezers have been donated, Health Ministry official Jessada Chokdamrongsook said.
Rear Admiral Charoenpol Kumrasri, a deputy commander of the Thai navy who is leading the rescue effort, said he was confident divers would complete their search of the sunken vessel by yesterday evening.
"After this evening, if we do not find any more missing in the wreckage, the missing will float to the surface and we will be able to find them," he told reporters.
China's ambassador to Thailand, Mr Lyu Jian, has also travelled to Phuket. He said Beijing has sent two search-and-rescue teams to help the Thai authorities.
"We aim to find the missing as soon as possible, as well as provide assistance to the injured, and family members of those involved," he said.
Some Thais and tour operators have questioned why the boat was at sea in bad weather.
The Chinese government has also pressed for a quick investigation into the cause of the accident, the Thai government's media office in Phuket said.
Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has ordered an investigation into why the Phoenix appeared to have ignored a weather warning, while the police said they would seek to charge the captain and owner of the boat with negligence.
Tourism is a key driver of growth in Thailand, South-east Asia's second-largest economy, making up 12 per cent of gross domestic product.
The highest number of foreign visitors to the country are from China. Last year, 9.8 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, with five million more arriving between January and May this year.
Thailand is in the middle of its rainy season, which usually runs from May to mid-October and often generates high winds and flash storms in coastal areas.
Accidents like the Phoenix disaster are bad for Thailand, said tourist police official Surachate Hakparn, adding: "We have to be more stringent."
Thailand is already in the global spotlight as a multinational effort to rescue 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach trapped for days in a northern mountain cave picks up pace.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE