Seven South Koreans die in Budapest tourist boat tragedy
Hungarian police on Thursday launched a criminal probe into one of the country's worst boat disasters that left seven South Korean tourists dead and 21 others still missing.
The Mermaid sightseeing boat collided with a much larger passenger cruise vessel on the Danube in the heart of Budapest on Wednesday evening and went down in just seven seconds, police said.
Army divers have joined police in the search for survivors, but the operation has been complicated by high water levels and a fast-moving current after weeks of heavy rainfall.
Authorities show footage of two ships seconds before their collision during a press briefing following a boat accident on the River Danube, at the police headquarters in Budapest, Hungary, 30 May 2019. // EPA-EFE PHOTO
Thirty-five people were on board the 26-metre Mermaid when it sank, most of them South Korean tourists including a six-year-old girl.
Police showed journalists security camera footage from a bridge in which the Mermaid colliding is seen colliding with the much bigger Viking Sigyn cruise boat.
"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.
"A criminal investigation has been launched... for criminal negligence on public waterways," he said, adding that police were questioning the Ukrainian captain of the Sigyn.
Viking Cruises confirmed that 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.
Fifteen boats are involved in the search for those still unaccounted for -- including the Hungarian captain and crew member -- about 15 hours after the Mermaid went down.
Rescuers on a boat are seen on the Danube river near the zone where the "Mermaid" sightseeing boat sank overnight after colliding with a larger vessel in pouring rain on May 30, 2019 in Budapest. // AFP PHOTO
Wreckage was found on the riverbed after several hours of searching 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 operation had been extended the entire length of the Danube in Hungary south of Budapest and that the authorities in neighbouring Serbia had been contacted.
Three bodies have already been found several kilometres south of the disaster site, police said.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is due in Budapest on Friday, and the country is also sending an emergency relief team, officials in Seoul said.
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.
Hungary's emergency services spokesman Pal Gyorfi said that seven rescued people were taken to hospital with symptoms of hypothermia and shock.
"The government expresses its condolences to the families of the South Korean victims of the Danube boat accident," it said on its Facebook page.
"The government is providing all possible help to the police, emergency services, divers, ambulance staff and doctors treating the survivors."
Access to the river has been blocked by the authorities, according to public television.
A picture taken on May 30, 2019 shows the front of the damaged Viking Cruises Sygin boat moored in Budapest, a few hours after it collided with the "Mermaid" sightseeing boat, wich sank after the accident in the Danube river. // AFP PHOTO
The temperature of the water is chilly, between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius (50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit), according to local media.
The boat was regularly serviced and had no apparent technical faults, Mihaly Toth, a spokesman for its owner Panorama Deck told Hungarian news agency MTI.
"It was a routine sightseeing trip," said Toth.
"We know nothing about how it happened, the authorities are investigating, all we know is that it sank quickly."
During the night search, a film crew working from a bridge south of the accident site used reflector lights to help light up the water through the gloom and pouring rain, local media reported.
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 travelling on the Danube between Germany and the Black Sea typically spend several days moored in the capital.