After Budapest Boat Crash, Fading Hope for Survivors and a Criminal Inquiry – The New York Times
BUDAPEST — For the South Korean tourists aboard the Mermaid, an 89-foot double-decker boat, it was one of the most anticipated parts of their Danube river cruise: sailing past the majestic Hungarian Parliament building.
The boat was passing under the Margaret Bridge on Wednesday night when a much larger sightseeing ship, the 442-foot Viking Sigyn, appeared to race up to the rear of the smaller vessel, clipping its stern and sending it spinning, according to video footage released by the police.
Dozens of passengers, from a 6-year-old girl to a 72-year-old man, were tossed into the fast-moving current as the Mermaid capsized. It took only seven seconds for the ship to start sinking, according to the police. On Thursday, the police confirmed that at least seven people had died and 21 others remained missing. Three bodies were found about two miles from the accident site, according to local reports. Hope was fading that the missing would be found alive.
It was the deadliest boating accident in the country in the past 75 years, Hungarian officials said. Attila Boros, a media officer with the National Police Headquarters, said that a criminal investigation has begun into the accident.
The Danube accident was also one of the deadliest ship accidents involving South Koreans since the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014. The overloaded Sewol sank off the southwest coast of South Korea, killing 304 people, including 250 high school students, in one of its worst peacetime disasters. The Budapest boat sinking, and the likelihood of a rise in the death toll, shocked South Korea, which is still recovering from the previous tragedy.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea spoke by phone to Prime Minister Viktor Orban and asked for the Hungarian government’s support for search-and-rescue operations, Mr. Moon’s office said. Mr. Orban told Mr. Moon that 200 divers and medical professionals had been sent to the site of the accident, the office said.
South Korea was also sending send an 18-member rescue team from its national fire agency to Budapest on Thursday. It will be followed by a team of 15 rescue experts from the South Korean Navy and Coast Guard, Mr. Moon’s office said. The second team will include divers who had participated in rescue operations after the Sewol accident.
The Danube collision took place at 9:05 p.m., according to Col. Adrian Pal, a police official, and emergency responders arrived at the site shortly before 9:30 p.m.
“Based on our information, there were 35 people on board” the Hableany, he said, using the Hungarian name for the boat. “Two individuals were Hungarian, the captain and a crewman, and 33 were South Korean,” he added. “Of the 33, two were tour guides, and 31 were tourists.”
Survivors said on Thursday that they had been powerless to help others in the swiftly flowing river. “People were floundering in the water in the darkness, shouting for help, but I could do nothing,” a 31-year-old survivor identified only by the family name Chung was quoted as saying by the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Another survivor, a 32-year-old woman identified only by her last name, Yoon, said the ship had capsized “in a split second” when it was hit by the larger vessel. “Those out on the deck were all thrown into the water, and those who were in the cabin below deck may not have been able to escape,” she said.
Seven people plucked from the river overnight had not been wearing life vests, most likely indicating that no one on the boat had any time to react before plunging into the frigid waters, officials said.
Hungary has seen an explosion in foreign tourism in recent years, with nearly 31 million guest nights recorded in 2018, an increase of more than one million compared with the previous year’s, according to government statistics. Budapest, the Hungarian capital known for its grand boulevards, thermal spas and baroque architecture, is one of Central Europe’s treasures and is the country’s biggest draw.
The city is divided by the Danube into the hilly Buda neighborhood on the west — adorned by a castle overlooking the river — and Pest to east, home to the Parliament building. The Margaret Bridge, which was built between 1872 and 1876, stretches more than 2,000 feet and connects the two sides of the city, along with a small island in the middle of the river.
It was the site of an accidental explosion in 1944, killing at least 600 people, when the city was occupied by the Nazis. As the Germans fled in 1945, they destroyed all the bridges connecting the city. The Margaret Bridge was rebuilt after the war and recently restored.
Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube stretches nearly 1,800 miles as it snakes its way from Germany to Ukraine and into the Black Sea. Sightseeing ships are a big draw. In Budapest, some of the ships simply pass through on extended cruises. Others, like the Mermaid, set out for short excursions lasting a few hours.
On a normal afternoon, the popular stretch of the Danube in Central Budapest where the crash took place would be bustling with ships. On Thursday, the river bank was transformed into a triage unit, in case more survivors were found by the emergency workers scouring the river and the lands on either side. Rescue crews patrolled the entire stretch of the Danube south of Budapest.
With the fast-moving current, officials said, they were seeking help from officials in Serbia — 111 miles downriver — should anyone have been swept away. Hungarian news outlet reported that because of the high water level, fast current and extremely poor underwater visibility, the conditions were dangerous for scuba divers. The location of the boat is known, they said, but the conditions may delay its recovery from the river.
Gabor Zacher, an emergency doctor in Budapest, said that people caught in the currents could sustain severe injuries, such as broken limbs, by being washed against objects in the water or along the shores of the river.
With the accident taking place at night, and with little time between the crash and the ship’s sinking, he said there had most likely been a great deal of panic. “The average person cannot prepare for the panic,” he said.
He said that survivors would have had to have reached shore quickly — in less than 20 minutes — before hypothermia set in.
Family members of the dead and missing were preparing to fly to Budapest. Very Good Tour, the South Korean travel agency that had sponsored the ill-fated sightseeing cruise, said it was arranging for them to catch the first flights available for Budapest.