BANGKOK, (Reuters) - Thai rescuers deployed helicopters on Friday to search for 23 people missing after a boat carrying Chinese tourists sank, with one official saying he feared “no chance” of any more survivors, which would mean nearly 60 dead.
The confirmed death toll from the accident off the resort island of Phuket stood at 33, provincial governor Noraphat Plodthong said, but the navy said divers had spotted “quite a few bodies” in the sunken vessel, the Phoenix.
The boat capsized in rough seas on Thursday with 105 people on board, 93 of them Chinese tourists along with 12 Thai crew and tour guides.
Television broadcast images of dozens of divers searching for the missing, while more rescuers waited on standby at a pier nearby. Seas were calm and skies clear on Friday.
The Marine Police said rescue teams were diving to a depth of about 40 metres (130 feet).
A Marine Department official said there was probably “no chance” any more survivors could be found from inside the boat.
“A day and a night have passed,” said the department’s deputy director-general, Kritpetch Chaichuay.
Thailand is in the middle of its rainy season, which usually runs from May to October and often generates high winds and flash storms in coastal areas, especially on its west coast, on the Indian Ocean, where Phuket is located.
Police are investigating the incident. The boat, which went down about 7 km (5 miles) from shore, was properly registered and had not been overloaded, police said.
Tour operators had been warned about the severe weather, Tourist Police bureau deputy chief, Major General Surachate Hakparn, said.
“Be careful ... nature is not a joke,” Surachate wrote on Facebook.
“The Tourist Police warned businesses in Phuket already to not take boats out from shore, but they violated this order by taking foreign tourists out,” he said.
A representative of the operator of the boat, TC Blue Dream, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
Thailand has a poor record on road and boat safety. Many tour operators have complained about lax enforcement of basic safety measures, such as seatbelts in cars and lifejackets on boats.
Another boat sailing in the same area capsized on Thursday but all 35 tourists, five crew and a guide on board were rescued, the Water Safety Department of the Harbour Department said.
The Chinese embassy in Bangkok said it had sent a team to Phuket to help and consulate staff in southern Thailand were on the scene helping their citizens.
Chinese tourists make up the biggest number of foreign visitors to Thailand, their numbers surging in recent years.
“China expresses gratitude for the active search and rescue efforts made by Thailand,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular briefing in Beijing.
Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Additional reporting by Gao Liangping, Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel and Robin Pomeroy