BANGKOK - The Royal Thai Navy said that at least six sailors have been confirmed dead after a ship sank off the coast of southern Thailand on Sunday night during a storm.
There were 105 sailors on board the HTMS Sukhothai, a corvette which went down 37km off the shore of the Prachuap Khiri Khan province, according to a navy tweet and government statement. Seventy-five people were rescued on Monday, according to the navy.
Navy commander, Admiral Choengchai Chomchoengpaet, told a press briefing on Tuesday that two more people were found alive, while four bodies had been recovered.
“I’d like to apologise to families of the deceased,” he said. The military later said another body had been found and one of those rescued had died.
The victims were found about 60km from the sunken vessel, according to the navy, which said 23 people were still missing. Some were without life vests.
The incident took place amid strong waves, which caused seawater to seep into the ship’s electrical system via an exhaust pipe, according to a Facebook post by the navy. The overflow later caused engine malfunction and listed the ship.
The vessel is 36 years old, still within the navy’s 40-year standard for vessel use, Adm Choengchai said. The sunken ship was equipped with life vests and six life rafts, which are programmed to automatically release and can carry 15 people each, he said. The waters around the sunken ship are about 40m in depth.
A legal investigation into the incident and loss of personnel and equipment will be conducted, the admiral said.
Rescuers in helicopters, two planes and four vessels – the HTMS Kraburi, HTMS Angthong, HTMS Naresuan and HTMS Bhumibol Adulyadej – were scanning the turbulent waters for missing sailors, the navy said.
“The latest person was found 41 hours from when the ship sank and he was alive. So we believe that there are those still alive out there... we will continue to search,” said Admiral Chonlathis Navanugraha, the navy’s chief of staff.
Vice-Admiral Pichai Lorchusakul, the regional navy commander, said finding the men on Tuesday would be critical given their time exposed to the elements.
Efforts to find the missing crew were focused on aerial searches, with the Royal Thai air force assisting the operation, which has been affected by strong winds.
HTMS Kraburi commander Kraiwit Kornraweeprapapitch said slightly improved weather would help the search.
“The format of searching is still the same, which is a joint operation with helicopters,” he said.
The vessels are scanning an area roughly 50km by 50km.
Member of the National Institute for Emergency Medicine Sahachart Limcharoenphakdee said they were working with naval staff to help those plucked from the waters.
“I am hopeful, and trust the navy rescue team who are skilful,” he said.
On Monday night, naval commander Pichai Lorchusakul told reporters at the pier that they remained focused on finding survivors.
“Our main priority is searching (for) and rescuing as many as we can,” he said.
He added this was the first time that the Thai navy had lost a ship this way.
Most on board were rescued before the boat sank, but dozens had to abandon ship in rafts and life jackets.
Lieutenant-Colonel Pichitchai Tuannadee, captain of the sunken ship, said he was in the sea for two hours before he scrambled onto a raft and was found by search teams on Monday.
“To see something as small as a life ring or a person’s head above the surface of the water, it’s very hard to see with the big waves,” he said, adding that the missing sailors were likely to be fatigued by now from having to tread water and make sure those without vests stayed afloat.
One of the marines was found late on Monday clinging to a buoy.
“He was floating in the water for 10 hours. He was still conscious, so we could take him out of the water safely,” said HTMS Kraburi commander Kraiwit.
Relatives of the missing gathered at rescue centres awaiting news of loved ones.
Ms Malinee Pudphong, aunt of missing marine Saharat Esa, said she spoke to her nephew by phone before the boat went down and was shocked to hear he did not get a life jacket. “We have no hope as they are floating in the sea with just a life ring and with this kind of wind, you think they will withstand that?“ she said.
“It’s a body of a 21-year-old. He’s not strong enough.”
Parts of southern Thailand have been hit by storms and flooding in recent days.
A warning from the Thai meteorological office remained in place on Tuesday, with strong winds causing rough conditions in the Gulf of Thailand, cautioning seafarers to proceed with caution and small boats to stay ashore.
The HTMS Sukhothai was commissioned in 1987 and built in the United States by the now-defunct Tacoma Boatbuilding Company, according to the US Naval Institute.
Adm Choengchai said the sinking would be investigated, including reports that there were not enough life jackets on board.
BLOOMBERG, AFP, REUTERS