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At least seven South Korean tourists dead in Budapest boat disaster

Boat was carrying 33 South Koreans, two Hungarian crew

By Reuters - May 31,2019 - Last updated at May 31,2019

Rescuers on a boat are seen on the River Danube near the zone where the ‘Mermaid’ sightseeing boat sank overnight after colliding with a larger vessel in pouring rain, on Thursday, in Budapest, Hungary (AFP photo)

BUDAPEST — Hungarian rescue officials said there was little chance of finding survivors after a boat carrying South Korean tourists sank on the Danube in Budapest, killing at least seven people and leaving 21 people missing.

The boat collided with a much larger luxury passenger boat during a rainstorm late on Wednesday near the parliament building, capsized and sank with some 30 tourists on board. The cause of the collision was under investigation.

"I am not inclined to say there is no hope, so I would rather say there is a minimal chance [of finding survivors]," Pal Gyorfi, a spokesman of the Hungarian national ambulance service, told the m1 state television station.

"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," he said when asked about the search for the missing.

Police said the smaller boat turned on its side and sank within seconds after the collision underneath a bridge. 

They said a criminal investigation was under way against "an unknown perpetrator", involving experts, to determine the cause of the accident. They said the first calls for help came in 10 minutes after the accident happened. 

They declined to say if the bigger vessel, the 135m Viking Sigyn, sent any signals for help.

Heavy recent rains have left the Danube in spate, and local flooding and the strong currents hampered rescuers, one diver told the state broadcaster m1. Water temperatures ranged from 10-12ºC, he said.

Officials said the hull of the ill-fated Mermaid, a 27m double-decker river cruise boat, had been found on the riverbed just a few hundred metres from its usual mooring point.

A crane ship docked near the wreck early on Thursday in preparation for recovery operations.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and President Janos Ader send their condolences to Seoul. "We are with the victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers in these most difficult times," Orban said, according to his spokesman.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the authorities would work with the Hungarian government to investigate the cause of the accident. 

"What's most important is speed," Moon said in Seoul.

The foreign ministry said 30 South Korean tourists, including children, three tour guides and two Hungarian crew were on board when the tragedy happened, around 9pm (19:00 GMT).

Seven South Koreans were rescued, seven died, and 19 were among the missing, said Kang Hyung-shik, a foreign ministry official. The seven people rescued were suffering from hypothermia but stable, a Hungarian ambulance spokesman said.

The Hungarian authorities confirmed the death toll. The two Hungarian crew members were both missing. Police said the seven people who died had no life vests on. 

"We have found the wreckage with a sonar," police Col. Adrian Pal told a press briefing. "We are looking at ways to extract [the Mermaid] from the river."

"At this point we cannot confirm or deny whether there are any bodies trapped inside the hull."

The crash happened extremely fast, according to video footage of a security camera shown by police at the press conference. The bigger boat, catching up from behind at a higher speed, caught the Mermaid's left side.

Rescue officials deployed boats, divers, floodlights and radar following the accident, scouring the river for several kilometres downstream from the site of the accident.

The National Ambulance Service extended its search for survivors and victims downstream from the capital Budapest and was on alert along a section further south. 

For a while traffic on the river, an important commercial waterway, was suspended on the entire Hungarian stretch of the Danube south of Budapest. However, the ban is now limited to the immediate area around the accident, Hungarian police said.

Officials have yet to determine what led to the collision between the Mermaid and the Viking Sigyn, a 95-room floating hotel of the kind that has multiplied as Danube river cruises gained popularity in recent years.

"We are mobilising every resource we have to protect human lives," the Mermaid's owner, Panorama Deck Ltd., told state media through a spokesman.

The boat — a Soviet model manufactured in 1949 and refurbished in the 1980s — had been in its fleet since 2003, with regular maintenance, it said.

The Sigyn's operator, Swiss-based Viking Cruises Ltd., acknowledged its vessel had been involved in an incident.

"There were no injuries to Viking crew or Viking guests. We are cooperating with the authorities as required," a Viking spokesperson said.

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