Grim search in the Danube as Budapest holiday turns fatal

Seven South Koreans dead and 19 missing after sightseeing boat sinks in seconds

A cool, wet spring had not dampened the start of the main tourist season in Budapest or stopped the day-and-night dance of sightseeing boats, river cruise ships and cargo barges on the Danube river that flows through the heart of the city.

On Thursday, however, crowds gathered on the embankment not to admire Hungary’s grand parliament or its former royal palace, but to follow the flashing lights of police boats moving slowly through the turbid water.

On Wednesday night at about 9pm, the Hableany (“Mermaid”) sightseeing boat with 33 South Koreans and two local crew members on-board collided with a much larger cruise ship near the Margit bridge that spans the Danube. Hungarian police say the little boat turned on its side and sank in about seven seconds.

Seven tourists are confirmed dead, and hope is fading quickly for 19 others and the two crewmen who are still missing, presumed trapped in the wreckage or swept away by a river swollen by the heavy rain that hampered the emergency rescue operation. Seven South Koreans are known to have survived the disaster.


"I am not inclined to say there is no hope, so I would rather say there is a minimal chance [of finding survivors]," local ambulance service spokesman Pal Gyorfi told Hungarian television.

“This is not just because of the water temperature, but the strong currents in the river, the vapour above the water surface, as well as the clothes worn by the people who fell in.”

Hungarian media reported that one survivor was found near Budapest's Petofi bridge, about 3km from where the crash occurred, and police said the search downstream had been extended all the way into neighbouring Serbia.

“I got an SMS message about the accident at about 1am,” said Seung-Goo Kim (22), a South Korean psychology student who stood in the rain on the riverside as a search ship lowered a drone-like device into the fast-flowing brown water.

"This is a really big story in South Korea. It's really bad news. I hope it will get better but I don't know if there is a chance," of finding anyone alive, he added.

Very Good Tour

In South Korea, the Very Good Tour agency that organised the holidaymakers' package trip said they were on a regular, hour-long sightseeing tour when the incident occurred and that the group was due to return home on Saturday. The agency plans to fly dozens of relatives of those involved to Hungary on Thursday.

Swiss-based Viking Cruises confirmed that one of its ships, the Sigyn, was involved in an incident in Budapest on Wednesday night. The 135-metre river cruiser – essentially a 95-room floating hotel – dwarfed the 26-metre Hableany.

“When people at home hear about Hungary, they think of the beautiful view of the river. It’s super-famous,” said Dae-Han Chung (22), another South Korean student looking out over the Danube, as an orange police launch turned against the swift current and motored back under Margit bridge.

“The number of tourists coming here from South Korea has been growing recently. But this is a disaster.”