Hopes fading as search after Budapest boat tragedy enters third day

A diver descends a ladder as rescuers work after a boat capsized under Margaret Bridge, in Budapest, Hungary, on May 30, 2019.
A diver descends a ladder as rescuers work after a boat capsized under Margaret Bridge, in Budapest, Hungary, on May 30, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BUDAPEST (AFP, REUTERS) - Hopes were fading on Friday (May 31) of finding any more survivors from a boat accident on the Danube River in Budapest, with 21 people still missing, most of them South Korean tourists.

Police and army boats continued search operations for a second night but their work has been hampered by high river levels and a strong current after weeks of heavy rainfall.

The Mermaid sightseeing boat overturned after colliding with a much larger river cruise ship on a busy stretch of the Danube in central Budapest on Wednesday evening.

At least seven South Korean tourists were killed and 21 people remain missing - including the boat's captain and a crew member, both Hungarian.

Only seven people are known to have survived so far.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday that he had asked for a thorough investigation into the boat accident.

"One is shaken by this... An accident happened where passengers had almost no chance for survival," Mr Orban told state radio, offering condolences to relatives of the victims.

"I have asked the authorities to carry out a strict and thorough investigation," he said.

Late on Thursday, the police announced that the captain of the larger ship, the 135m four-storey Viking Sigyn, had been taken into custody and "questioned as a suspect... in relation to 'endangering waterborne traffic resulting in multiple deaths'."

"After being questioned, 64-year-old Yuriy C, a resident of Odessa, was detained and a request for his arrest has been made," police said in a statement.

On Thursday, police launched a investigation into possible "criminal negligence on public waterways".

RISKY OPERATION

A floating crane was erected near the accident site, as well as a small pier for use by divers.

However, experts warned that the Danube's high current level would make any diving attempts very risky and that lifting the wreck could take several days.

 
 
 

The water level is not expected to start receding before Tuesday at the earliest.

On Thursday, police revealed the strong current had swept one of the victims around 11km downstream of the accident site.

The search operation has been extended to cover the entire length of the Danube in Hungary south of Budapest, and Hungarian authorities have also contacted their counterparts in neighbouring Serbia.

The families of some of the victims are due to fly to Budapest on Friday. South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is also expected to arrive along with a emergency task force.

Ms Kang will give a press conference with her Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto at 9.30am local time.

Mr Lee Sang-moo, chief operating officer of Very Good Tour which organised the trip for the South Koreans, said most of the passengers were in their 50s and 60s, with the oldest a man in his early 70s.

A six-year-old girl who was travelling with her mother and grandparents is also among those missing.

A candlelight vigil for the victims is expected at the South Korean embassy in Budapest on Friday evening.

On Thursday, locals laid flowers and lit candles at the embassy and on Budapest's Margaret Bridge near the scene of the tragedy.

The accident happened on a popular part of the Danube River for pleasure trips, from whence passengers can view the city and Parliament building illuminated at night.

Dozens of small sightseeing boats ply the river through Budapest every day. Larger river cruise boats travelling on the Danube between Germany and the Black Sea typically spend several days moored in the capital.

River traffic was suspended after the accident, but on Thursday, it was partially re-opened on the western side of the river, farther away from where the collision took place.