Hunt for missing after South Koreans die in Budapest boat tragedy

Police and rescue boats are seen on the Danube river near the zone where the ‘Mermaid’ sightseeing boat sank overnight after colliding with a larger vessel in pouring rain on May 30, 2019 in Budapest. — AFP pic
Police and rescue boats are seen on the Danube river near the zone where the ‘Mermaid’ sightseeing boat sank overnight after colliding with a larger vessel in pouring rain on May 30, 2019 in Budapest. — AFP pic

BUDAPEST, May 30 — Hungarian rescuers were hunting for survivors today after one of the country’s worst boat disasters that left seven South Korean tourists dead and 21 others still missing.

The Mermaid sightseeing boat capsized and sank in just seconds after colliding with a much larger passenger river cruise ship in driving rain on the Danube in the heart of Budapest yesterday evening.

Army boats were scouring the murky waters of the Danube as dozens of people looked on, with chances of finding survivors dimming 19 hours after the accident in the fast-moving river.

“The current was so fast and people were floating away but the rescue team did not come,” a rescued 31-year-old woman identified only by her surname Jung told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Thirty-five people were on board the 26-metre Mermaid when it collided with the Viking Sigyn “longship” near Hungary’s parliament building, most of them South Korean tourists including a six-year-old girl who remains missing.

Another survivor, a 32-year-old woman surnamed Yoon, said: “The boat flipped instantly and capsized.”

Police said they have launched a probe into “criminal negligence” and were questioning the Ukrainian captain of the Sigyn.

The tragedy comes five years after the Sewol disaster in South Korea in which more than 300 people, mostly children, perished when a ferry capsized in April 2014.

In Budapest, army divers joined police in the search for survivors and victims, but the operation has been complicated by high water levels and a strong current after weeks of heavy rainfall.

Three bodies have been found several kilometres south of the disaster site, police said.

“We were on our balcony, and we saw people in the water, screaming for help,” said Ginger Brinton, a 66-year-old American tourist on the Sigyn.

“We never felt any bump. We didn’t realise. We just saw people in the water. It was just terrible.”

‘Seven seconds to sink’

Police showed journalists security camera footage from a bridge which captured the moment of the tragedy.

“The footage shows that before the collision the Mermaid turned towards the Viking Sigyn cruise boat, for some reason, the Viking then turned the small boat over, and it sank within seven seconds,” police colonel Adrian Pal told a press conference.

Viking Cruises confirmed the Sigyn was “involved in an incident” on the Danube but there were no injuries to its crew or guests.

“We are cooperating with the authorities as required,” it said.

The Mermaid was regularly serviced and had no apparent technical faults, Mihaly Toth, a spokesman for its owner Panorama Deck told Hungarian news agency MTI, adding that it was on “a routine sightseeing trip”.

Wreckage found

Hungary’s emergency services spokesman Pal Gyorfi said that seven survivors were taken to hospital with symptoms of hypothermia and shock.

Fifteen boats are involved in the search for those still unaccounted for — including the Hungarian captain and crew member.

Wreckage was found on the riverbed after several hours of searching near the Margaret Bridge, one of the main links between the two parts of the Hungarian capital, local media said.

Zsolt Gabor Pataki, a colonel with the fire department, said the operation had been extended to cover the entire length of the Danube in Hungary south of Budapest and that the authorities in neighbouring Serbia had been contacted.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is due in Budapest on Friday, and the country is also sending an emergency relief team, officials in Seoul said.

In a phone call with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for “active support” from the Hungarian government in the rescue efforts.

South Korean embassy staff have also been assisting the emergency services in the identification of victims.

‘Most difficult moments’

Orban sent a letter of condolence to Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, and sought to ensure his counterpart that Hungary was making every possible effort in the search for survivors, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said.

“We stand together with the people of South Korea in these most difficult moments.”

Access to the river — where the water temperature is as low as 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) — has been blocked by the authorities, according to public television.

The accident happened on a popular part of the Danube river for pleasure trips, from where 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. — AFP

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