Hungarian divers struggled on Friday to reach the wreck of a pleasure boat that sank in the Danube river during a sightseeing trip in Budapest, killing seven South Korean tourists and leaving 21 people missing, feared dead.
Seven South Koreans survived the sinking of the Hableány (“Mermaid” in Hungarian), which went down in seconds on Wednesday night after colliding with a much larger river cruise ship, whose captain has been arrested. Nineteen South Korean tourists and two Hungarian crewmen are unaccounted for.
Prolonged heavy rain in the region has swelled the Danube and reduced visibility underwater, making the divers’ work more dangerous and increasing the likelihood that strong currents have swept victims far downstream. One body was found almost 12km from the site of the accident just hours after it occurred.
“We have to prepare for a protracted search . . . The wreck is located more than six metres deep and the water level continues to rise,” said Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs Péter Szijjártó.
His South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha arrived in Budapest on Friday morning and went to the site of the sinking at Margit bridge in the centre of the city, where military, police and salvage vessels plied the murky and fast-flowing water.
“I asked for an early raising of the sunken boat, and the expansion of the scope of search operations to neighbouring countries along the river,” she said.
“We have firmly decided that we won’t give up our hopes about the possibility of finding survivors,” she added.
An unnamed official at South Korea’s foreign ministry told media in Seoul that only two victims had been identified so far, both women in their 50s.
"They were identified because they had some form of identification with them. A total of 43 relatives of the victims are on their way to Hungary and will help identify the bodies as well," the official said.
South Korean divers and forensic experts who were involved in the response to the country’s 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, in which 304 people died, have also arrived in Budapest.
“There is the possibility that some of the missing may be inside the boat, so we are requesting a speedy process with search and possibly salvaging the boat,” the South Korean official said.
"We have also requested assistance from surrounding countries where the Danube flows to, such as Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania, to help with the search work."
The 67-metre Hableány collided with the 135-metre Viking Sigyn cruiser as it completed an hour-long sightseeing trip, of the kind that is part of many tourists' itinerary in the picturesque Hungarian capital.
Budapest police say they have detained the captain of the Swiss-owned cruise ship, a Ukrainian citizen identified as Yuriy C, on suspicion of “endangering waterborne traffic resulting in multiple deaths.”
All those on the deck fell into the water and I think those staying in the cabin on the first floor probably couldn't get out of the ship swiftly
His lawyer, Balázs Tóth, told Hungarian media it was “premature, at the moment not more than a theory” to blame his client, who he said has 44 years of experience and strongly protests his innocence. The captain of the Hableány is among the missing.
One survivor identified as Yoon (32) told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency: “Our boat was turned over in an instant and began sinking . . . All those on the deck fell into the water and I think those staying in the cabin on the first floor probably couldn’t get out of the ship swiftly.”
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has spoken by telephone about the accident and rescue effort with South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
“One is shaken by this . . . an accident happened where passengers had almost no chance for survival,” Mr Orbán said on Friday.
“I have asked the authorities to carry out a strict and thorough investigation.”