Phuket - A scene of horror in the hull of a sunken boat: mothers still holding babies, their bodies suspended in water as the lower lounge of the Phoenix became a tomb in one of Thailand's worst ever sea disasters.
At least 41 people died -- all Chinese tourists -- when the Phoenix went down in rough seas on Thursday. Fifteen people are still missing but two days later flickers of hope for miracle survivals are all but extinguished.
While some 48 passengers and crew managed to flee the sinking vessel by jumping into the sea or mounting life rafts, many were trapped in the main lounge as the pleasure boat plummeted 40 metres into the Andaman Sea.
"It's difficult... it's traumatic... as you can imagine when you find dead bodies, children, kids, in the arms of the mother in the wreck," said Philippe Entremont, the manager of a Phuket dive shop who was helping coordinate the underwater search.
"But now the best thing to do for us, our job is to find the bodies and bring them back to the families," the Frenchman added.
Dozens of rescuers -- including volunteers and recreational divers -- have scoured the waters for two days, in an area known for its reefs.
Most of Thailand's diving experts have been diverted to the north to a rescue operation at a flooded cave where 12 schoolboys have been trapped for two weeks.
That left volunteers in Phuket leading the grim task of trying to retrieve bodies from the sunken vessel.
Entremont said those going down are specially trained to dive at depth -- the boat has sunk to about 47 metres.
South African Dominic Robnik, who has been involved in the search on both days, called the scenes "very, very sad".
"There was a lot of debris, shoes, glass, and even personal belongings, so we had to navigate through all that," he said.
Divers were positioned every five metres so recovered bodies were slowly passed up to the surface, Robnik said, adding that he had helped move at least six bodies.
One body has been particularly hard to retrieve after it was trapped by the sunken boat, the divers said, adding that they were ready to bring in specialised equipment.
But late Saturday afternoon, the underwater search was stopped with the Thai navy taking over the operation.
The bodies would "surface naturally" according to Rear Admiral Charoenphone Khumrasee. It is the grim reality of boat disasters, said Entremont. "Maybe in a few days' time we'll find them from a beach somewhere drifting away."//AFP