PHUKET — Thailand’s government pledged Sunday to ensure justice for Chinese victims of a tour boat that sank in a storm off the southern resort island of Phuket, killing 42 people and leaving another 14 missing.
Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat said the government will “spare no one” as it seriously investigates the tragedy, one of the largest tourism-related disasters in Thailand since a 2004 tsunami that killed thousands.
Police were investigating whether the double-decker Phoenix dive boat had been inspected by marine officials as required before it set sail Thursday, Weerasak said. The meteorological department issued warnings for small ships not to go to sea that day but bigger boats like the Phoenix could sail after inspection.
The boat, with 105 people, including 93 tourists, capsized and sank after it was hit by 5-meter (16-foot) waves.
Tourism is a vital part of the Thai economy, with the World Bank estimating the Southeast Asian nation generates about 12 percent of its gross domestic product from tourism receipts. Chinese tourists are a key driver of the industry, accounting for 9.8 million of the record 35.38 million tourists to visit the country last year.
Local police chief Sorasak Yenprem said evidence from 40 witnesses showed that the captains of the Phoenix and another boat that also sank Thursday had “acted carelessly.” All the passengers from the second ship were rescued.
The two boat captains have been charged but they denied the allegations, Sorasak said, adding that the investigations are ongoing.
“We will ensure that those responsible are brought to justice,” Weerasak said.
The government will strengthen security regulations to prevent future accidents and intensify efforts to restore trust and confidence in its tourism sector, he added.
The disaster didn’t appear to deter visitors, with dozens of Western and some Chinese tourists seen leaving on boats Sunday for diving and cruise trips despite a warning issued by the Meteorological Department for smaller ships not to go to sea.
Yi Mao Ling, a 63-year-old tourist from China’s Kunming city, said he was perplexed by the tragedy as he walked up to a boat with his children and grandchildren for an island trip.
“It makes me feel uncomfortable but we can go. I am not worried,” he told The Associated Press.
Thai navy official Rear Adm. Charoenpol Kumrasi said more than 30 divers were involved in an operation Sunday to flip the sunken Phoenix to retrieve a body trapped underneath. He said they will need more time and equipment to raise the wreckage, which is sitting some 40 meters (131 feet) beneath the surface.
The search for the missing would also continue, he said, with divers and helicopters searching areas around the site and the nearby sea. Nearly a dozen Chinese divers were taking part in the search.
French diver Laurent Couleau said a pair of legs was seen dangling from beneath the hull when he and other divers entered the wreck on Saturday. He said it was traumatic seeing bodies, including those of several young children, in the boat’s cabins, some wearing life jackets.
Couleau said he took a dive group out on the same route and on the same day when the Phoenix sank. He said the weather in the morning was good and that the storm came suddenly with very strong wind and waves that rocked his boat as it sailed back to pier.
A Chinese survivor related his ordeal to China’s CGTN television.
“The waves were really high and stormy; they were hitting the boat constantly. I was with my sister, brother and two friends from school. All of them are dead. I feel terrible,” Huang Jun Siong said. “I only broke my hand. I was climbing up to the top of the boat but stuff was flying around everywhere. A big piece of glass hit me.”
Many Chinese have volunteered their services at the hospital to help distraught relatives.
“Even though we are doctors, in this situation, it makes us feel that life is so fragile,” said Fang Han Yi, a medical student from China’s Wuhan city, who volunteered at the hospital Saturday.
She was in Bangkok with her two friends but said they abandoned their holiday plans and flew to Phuket to help out. She said one of the most heartbreaking scene at the hospital Saturday were that of four Chinese students who survived the ordeal but their friend perished.
The five, from China’s Guangdong province, just graduated from high school and came to Phuket to celebrate, she said.
“Two of the boys held each other so tight and cried uncontrollably,” Fang said. “We cried with them.”
Story: Eileen Ng