Phuket boat accident: Death toll climbs to 41, 15 still missing

A photo by The Royal Thai Navy Third Area Command shows Thai Navy officials rendering assistance after a boat carrying Chinese tourists sank off Phuket, on July 5, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (REUTERS, AFP) - The death toll after a boat carrying Chinese tourists sank off the coast of Thailand's Phuket island climbed to 41 on Saturday (July 7), with 15 people still missing, officials said.

Rescuers have resumed a search for those still missing from the sunken vessel, the Phoenix, which capsized in rough waters on Thursday carrying 93 Chinese tourists and 12 Thai crew and tour guides in one of Thailand's worst recent accidents.

Earlier in the day authorities said a hospital morgue in Phuket was running out of space and called on donors to help provide freezers for the bodies.

Forty-one of those on board have been confirmed dead and 49 rescued, officials said.

"Deceased: 41. Missing: 15," the Thai government said in a statement.

Many of the dead were found drifting in the sea, still wearing life jackets, several kilometres from where the three-decker Phoenix went down after being hit by 5m-high waves in a storm on Thursday evening.

Ambulances unloaded bodies at the hospital on Phuket's east coast that received most of the casualties, as 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 Reuters 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, said Jessada Chokdamrongsook, a health ministry official.

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 Saturday.

"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 Lyu Jian, who has travelled to Phuket, said Beijing had 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, as well as help them make preparations for the next step," he said.


Some Thais and tour operators have questioned why the boat was at sea during 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 junta No. 2 Prawit Wongsuwan has ordered an investigation into why the Phoenix appeared to have ignored a weather warning, while police said they would seek to charge the captain and owner with negligence.

Tourism is a key driver of growth in Thailand, which is South-east Asia's second-largest economy, making up 12 per cent of gross domestic product, and the most number of foreign visitors 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 multi-national effort to rescue 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach trapped for days in a northern mountain cave picks up pace.

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