Hunt for missing after South Koreans die in Budapest boat tragedy

Peter Murphy, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 31 2019 12:28 AM

Police special forces officers and divers are seen on a boat at the site of a ship accident, which killed several people, near Margaret Bridge on the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary, May 30, 2019. Antonio Bronic, Reuters

BUDAPEST - Hungarian rescuers were hunting for survivors on Thursday 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 huge passenger river cruise ship on the Danube in the heart of Budapest in driving rain on Wednesday evening.

Army boats were scouring the murky waters of the Danube as dozens of people looked on, with chances of finding survivors in fading more than 20 hours after the accident in the chilly and fast-moving river.

Thirty-five people were on board the Mermaid, most of them South Korean tourists including a six-year-old girl who was traveling with her mother and grandparents and remains missing.

"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.

The 26-meter Mermaid, which sank near Hungary's parliament building, was dwarfed by the vessel it collided with -- the 135-meter four-story Viking Sigyn "longship" which had about 180 passengers on board.

"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 realize. We just saw people in the water. It was just terrible."

Police said they have launched a probe into "criminal negligence" and were questioning the Sigyn's Ukrainian captain.

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 river levels and a strong current after weeks of heavy rainfall.

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

- '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".

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.

Lee said 40 relatives are due to fly to Budapest from Friday, the same day South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is set to arrive along with a emergency task force.

Symptoms of hypothermia

Hungary's emergency services spokesman Pal Gyorfi said 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 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 search operation had been extended to cover the entire length of the Danube in Hungary south of Budapest and that the authorities in neighboring Serbia had been contacted.

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 condolence letter to Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, and sought to ensure his counterpart that Hungary was making every possible effort to find survivors, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said.

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

 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 traveling on the Danube between Germany and the Black Sea typically spend several days moored in the capital.