By SALINEE PARP
THAI and Chinese authorities continued their search for 14 Chinese tourists who are still missing after the “Phoenix” diving yacht sank in the rough sea on the way back from a popular snorkelling spot off Phuket on Thursday.
The death toll from the boat’s capsizing has risen to 42 while 14 passengers remain unaccounted for. The number of missing persons was updated and confirmed as of press time following the retrieval of a body from the sea yesterday.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is scheduled to visit the victims in Phuket and give encouragement to officials and rescuers today.
Chinese Ambassador Lyu Jian, who went to the search and rescue opertion command centre for updates on the sunken boat victims at Chalong Bay, vowed that even if there were only 1 per cent hope left the search would continue. He also said China would send two more experts to join its 17-strong team to assist with the Thai authority’s investigation.
Tourism and Sport Minister Weerasak Kowsurat said Thailand and China would join hands in three operations to quickly resolve this tragedy: the search of missing tourists until the last one is found; the investigation into the cause; and care for the victims and their relatives.
A centre has been established at Phuket International Airport to ensure smooth flow of information and help for tourist victims and their relatives. He said a Chinese interpreter volunteer had been assigned to take care of each victim’s relatives. So far, 50 families have arrived in Phuket from China in the hope of getting updates and being reunited with their loved ones.
The airport centre is in addition to the existing information centres for this case in Phuket; other centres are at two hospitals’ morgues to proceed with collection of bodies and at the Phuket City Hall to provide information via phone numbers 076- 685394 and 076-685395 to relatives who had not travelled to Thailand.
“This tragedy is Thailand’s second worst sea disaster after the 2004 tsunami. No one wants this to happen. If this case were solved quickly on the basis of trust [between the two nations] and brings clarity to the society, it would change this crisis into building more confidence in Thai tourism,” he said.
Phuket Governor Norraphat Plodthong affirmed the search had been continuously conducted by divers in the area where the boat sank, by boat patrol and air patrol and had already expanded to the waters of Krabi and Phang Nga.
Provincial Police Region 8 chief Pol Lt-General Sorasak Yenprem said police had interviewed 40 witnesses and had already filed charges against the captains of the Phoenix and another yacht “The Senereta”. Both boats capsized on Thursday afternoon while returning from Koh Racha to the island resort of Phuket. While passengers on board the Senereta were safe, serious casualties occurred among those aboard the Phoenix, which carried 93 passengers and 12 crew members. While 49 passengers and crew managed to flee the sinking Phoenix, 42 people died and another 14 are still missing.
Sorasak said that the Phoenix captain was initially hit by the charge of recklessness causing deaths and injuries to others and property damage while the Senereta captain was initially hit with the charge of recklessness causing injuries and property damages. Both captains denied the charges.
Third Naval Region deputy commander Rear Admiral Charoenpol Khumrasee said the related agencies’ meeting had concluded that the Navy-led search for 14 missing tourists near Koh Lanta Noi’s beaches along with several islets would be done in parallel with the Marine Department-supervised mission to lift the boat in order to look for any missing bodies there.
Meanwhile, tour boats were yesterday allowed to operate from Phuket’s Chalong Bay to short-distance attractions as many people had already booked their trips. Boats had been banned from departing the Chalong Bay on Friday and Saturday, but the ban was lifted yesterday.
The authorities also required tour boats to put safety measures in place and made it mandatory for all tourists on-board to wear life vests properly.