PHUKET (AFP) – Thai rescuers pulled 37 bodies from waters off the coast of the holiday island of Phuket on Friday after a tourist boat went down in heavy seas with dozens of Chinese passengers on board.
Many of the dead were found drifting face down in the water, still wearing life jackets, several kilometres (miles) from where the Phoenix sank after being hit by five-metre (15-foot) high waves in a storm on Thursday evening.
“The death toll today is 37, with 18 still unaccounted for,” said a Thai navy official late Friday, requesting anonymity.
In a grisly development earlier, divers reported seeing “over 10 bodies” floating inside the hull of the submerged boat, according to Thai navy Rear Admiral Charoenphon Khumrasee, who said they would try to retrieve them later Friday.
One survivor, a Chinese woman, was rushed to hospital in Phuket, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, after she was found several kilometres from the boat having spent the night in the water.
Her condition was unknown.
The three-decker boat was carrying 105 passengers, mostly Chinese tourists, when it sank.
“The skies were clear when we went out, we had no idea the weather could change so fast,” said Wu Jun, 28, from the hospital bedside of his wife Long Hai Ning.
The pair, who were on their honeymoon, were on different decks as the boat started to list, but both managed to escape.
“I grabbed onto a railing and pulled myself overboard,” he told AFP, adding he feared women and children were among those who were trapped on the bottom deck as the boat went down.
A total of 56 passengers were reported missing as of Friday morning before the recovery effort began, with the Phoenix looking set to be one of the worst boat disasters in recent Thai history.
The boat sank 40 metres below the surface of the Andaman Sea, a few kilometres off the coast of Koh He, an islet known for its coral formations and popular with day-trippers from the tourist magnet of Phuket.
A stream of full body bags were brought to shore at Chalong pier in Phuket and taken to a nearby hospital for identification.
Helicopters continued to scan the water Friday afternoon in what appeared to be an increasingly forlorn hunt for survivors.
“I m not really sure how many will survive,” a grim-faced Noraphat Plodthong, the governor of Phuket, told reporters.
Some 48 people — passengers and crew — were rescued from the Phoenix on Thursday before the operation was suspended overnight.
Thai junta number two Prawit Wongsuwon ordered an investigation into why “the boat went to sea” despite a weather warning, while Thai police said they would seek to charge the captain and owner with negligence.
The Phoenix was among several boats that appeared to have ignored a warning in place since Wednesday not to take tourists on day-trips to the islands that dot the seas off Phuket.
Several other vessels hit trouble late Thursday, but all of their passengers were rescued.
Thailand is already in the global spotlight for a dramatic rescue mission in the north of the country, after 12 boys and their football coach were trapped in a cave complex.
A Chinese consular official arrived at the operations centre in Phuket to monitor the rescue effort.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said a taskforce was on its way to Thailand.
“We hope that the Thai side can continue their best efforts and… do their best to treat the injured, comfort relatives and deal with other follow up measures,” he said.
Phuket draws hordes of overseas visitors including Western sun-seekers and huge numbers of Chinese tourists who make up nearly a third of the 35 million people expected to visit Thailand this year.
Last year 9.8 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, with five million more arriving between January and May this year.
Thailand has a poor health and safety record and accidents are common on its roads and busy waterways — especially in tourist areas during the monsoon season which is now biting.