PATTAYA, Thailand – Survivors of a Thai ferry disaster recounted Monday a desperate fight for life belts and a battle to stay afloat after the boat packed with foreign tourists suddenly sank.
The tragedy, which left six dead including three foreigners, raised new questions about safety standards in the kingdom, which drew a record 22 million tourists last year but is struggling to shake off a reputation for lax regulation.
“There were too many people on the boat. Fifteen minutes into the trip water came on board,” said Natalia Serova, 27, from Russia.
“People were fighting to get life belts. There were only 30 or 40 on board. I jumped a minute before the boat sank. I turned around and saw it go under with people on board.”
Russian tourist Elena Bondarenko said survivors were caught in strong currents after the vessel went down.
“We survived by staying together. Some people couldn’t swim. I’m just glad to survive. There were people on the boat when it went under.”
Three Thais, one person from Hong Kong and two other unidentified foreigners died, according to officials in the tourist resort of Pattaya, around 150 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Bangkok.
Russia’s foreign ministry said one of its nationals was among the dead but there was no confirmation from the Thai side.
The double-decker ferry sank on Sunday afternoon near Koh Larn, a small island popular with day-trippers from the beachside city, renowned for its racy nightlife.
“The boat went down in minutes. I saw people — some with life jackets, some without — in the water. One man was holding on to a gas cylinder. There was a body face down in the water. They were all panicking, shouting for help,” said a local dive guide who was one of the first on the scene.
Police said that apart from the six dead, all of the 150-200 others on the boat — including many Russians — were believed to have been rescued. Nineteen people were injured.
“We don’t expect to find any more dead. One Russian boy is seriously ill in intensive care,” said Pattaya police chief Colonel Suwarn Chiewnawintawat.
The captain fled the scene but was later detained and due to face charges of causing death by negligence, according to police.
Accidents involving boats, buses and other forms of public transport are common in Thailand, where safety standards are generally poor.
A local boat captain who witnessed the tragedy recounted throwing life jackets to passengers in the water.
“I saw 100 people — most of them foreigners — in the water,” he said. “I threw 50 life jackets into the water. There was one man, he was not breathing. We pulled him out of the water.”
On Pattaya’s main pier it was business as usual Monday for the operators of double-decker wooden ferries preparing to take tourists out on day cruises.
“After an accident like this the boats should be grounded for checks but today they are all running,” said a European working in the town’s marine tourism industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The boats are very old. There’s no maintenance. They are always overcrowded… there’s no head count.”
The cause of the accident was not yet known, but Jaruek Nangkeam, 45, the co-owner of the boat’s operator Kohlarn Travel, said the ferry may have hit an unknown object, ripping a hole in its hull.
He insisted the boat only had 130 people on board — below its 150 capacity — and blamed the driver for the incident, describing him as “careless”.
In recent years the kingdom’s tourist-friendly image as the “Land of Smiles” has also been tarnished by political violence, crimes against foreigners and devastating floods.
In May more than 100 people were rescued from a tourist ferry which began to sink in rough seas near the tourist island of Phuket.
Two Chinese tourists were killed and several others injured in a speedboat accident in August in Pattaya, and a honeymooning Indian woman died when a boat propeller struck her head while parasailing last month.
Other high-profile safety incidents in the kingdom include a fire at a nightclub in August 2012 on the island of Phuket that left four people dead including two foreigners.