KUALA LUMPUR • Rescuers yesterday expanded their search for four Chinese tourists and a Malaysian crewman after their boat sank in rough seas off Sabah state, as police detained the boat's owner, its skipper and another crewman for suspected negligence.
One Chinese national escaped the ordeal at sea when he cancelled the trip after seeing that the boat was full.
The sinking of the catamaran off Sabah last Saturday, the first day of the Chinese New Year holiday, sparked an air and sea search covering some 400 nautical square miles.
The boat with 30 people aboard left around 9am from a jetty in the state capital Kota Kinabalu for Pulau Mengalum, an island known for its pristine beaches and dive sites. The boat owner reported it missing on Saturday evening. The skipper said the boat had "broken" and sank after being hit by big waves.
The authorities earlier said there were 31 people on board, including three crewmen. Police yesterday said there were only 30 people in the passenger boat.
"One of the tourists who had registered and was supposed to be on the trip to the island cancelled his plans after seeing that the boat was full," Sabah Police Commissioner Ramli Din told reporters. The lucky man was Mr Li Qun, 33,
The boat sank about an hour into the journey, police said.
A survivor was quoted as saying that he was separated from his wife when waves struck the boat. "When the boat capsized, we were separated by the waves... She did not survive," he said.
Number of people in the boat when it sank
Number of people the boat is licensed to carry
Number of hours the Chinese tourists survived in the sea
Twenty exhausted Chinese tourists survived some 32 hours in the water thanks to their life jackets and by clinging desperately to objects from the boat, but three other tourists died. "The search area is now 1,500 nautical square miles," Mr Awil Kamsari, a spokesman for the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, told AFP. "They could have drifted farther so we have to expand the search area."
About 350 officers from the agency, the navy and the air force are involved as well as a C-130 aircraft. Part of the search area falls in Brunei's waters and the authorities there are using a helicopter to look for the missing six, Mr Awil added.
"Brunei has deployed a helicopter and boat to search for the missing, who may have drifted into their waters," Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency director-general Ahmad Puzi Abdul Kahar was quoted as saying by New Straits Times Online yesterday.
"We hope the fine weather continues, and I have also observed that there are many fishing boats in Semarang waters assisting in the search operation," Datuk Seri Puzi added.
The search was postponed due to rough seas on Sunday night but resumed yesterday morning.
The skipper and another crew member were found alive on Sunday off Pulau Tiga, some 50km south of Pulau Mengalum. The other survivors were picked up later.
The authorities late on Sunday announced that three Chinese passengers were dead. The 20 Chinese tourists who were rescued were taken to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu.
"Their skin was sensitive and they were all dehydrated," said Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Shahidan Kassim, who checked on the survivors as they were brought ashore.
Anxious family members from China arrived in Kota Kinabalu yesterday and were escorted to the hospital by Chinese embassy officials.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, XINHUA