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World & Nation

Budapest boat crash leaves 7 South Korean tourists dead; cruise ship captain detained

A Hungarian military ship at the search for survivors on the River Danube in Budapest, Hungary, on Thursday.
(Laszlo Balogh / Associated Press)

Rescue crews geared up Thursday to raise a sightseeing boat from the bottom of the Danube River in the heart of Budapest, the Hungarian capital, as search teams scoured the waters for 21 people missing after the vessel, packed with South Korean tourists, collided with a larger cruise ship and sank.

Seven people are confirmed dead and seven have been rescued, all of them South Koreans, Hungarian officials said. Hungary’s state TV reported that all those rescued have been released from the hospital except one who is being treated for broken ribs.

Officials said preparations to bring up the 70-year-old boat, which was built in the former Soviet Union, could take days.

Police, who launched a criminal investigation into the incident, said late Thursday that they had detained and questioned the Ukrainian captain of the larger vessel.

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The 64-year-old man is suspected of endangering water transport leading to a deadly mass accident. In line with Hungarian laws, the suspect was identified only as Yuriy C. Police proposed the arrest of the Odessa resident, described earlier by police as an experienced sailor.

So far, only seven of the 35 people on board, including 33 South Koreans, are known to have survived the incident near the Hungarian parliament building.

A South Korean group on a package tour of Europe — 30 tourists, two guides and a photographer— were on an hourlong sightseeing tour of Budapest when their boat collided with a Viking cruise ship during a downpour Wednesday evening.

Nineteen South Koreans and two Hungarian crew members — the captain and his assistant — remain missing.

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A map released by police showed the locations and times the seven bodies were recovered, with one body found nearly 7.5 miles downstream, nearly 2½ hours after the collision.

“Those contributing to the search will continue to do everything possible ... along the full Hungarian stretch of the Danube’s coasts in the interests of the locating the missing persons,” police said in a statement, adding that the river was flowing at speeds of 5.6 to 6.8 mph.

A crisis management team from the South Korean government arrived in Budapest late Thursday, as well as representatives from the South Korean tourist agency that organized the ill-fated trip.

The sunken boat was found early Thursday near the Margaret Bridge, not far from the neo-Gothic parliament building on the riverbank.

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Video released by Hungarian police showed the sightseeing boat, identified as the Hableany, or Mermaid, traveling closely side by side and in the same direction as a German-built Viking cruise ship as they approached the bridge Wednesday night.

The Hableany then appeared to steer slightly to its left, into the path of the 443-feet long cruise ship, which continued to sail on at the same speed. The two collided and the sightseeing boat was then seen tipping on its side between the bridge’s two supports.

“As the Viking comes into contact with [the Hableany], it overturns it and in about seven seconds, as it turn on its side, it sinks,” Police Col. Adrian Pal said.

Pal said it’s unclear what caused the Hableany to steer into the path of the Viking. He said several people aboard the Hableany fell into the water after the collision. The South Korean government said none of those on board was wearing a life jacket.

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Police said rescue operations were hampered by the rain and the fast flow of the Danube. The search for the 21 missing extended far downstream, even into Serbia, where the Danube goes after leaving Hungary.

The river, which is 500 yards wide at the point of the accident, was rising as heavy rain continued in the city. Water temperatures were about 50 to 53 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hajoregiszter.hu, a local ship-tracking website, lists the Hableany as having been built in 1949 in the former Soviet Union. The Viking Sigyn was built this year, according to CruiseMapper.com.

CCTV video recorded on Wednesday night showed that the river was busy with boats of different sizes traveling in both directions.

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Budapest has enjoyed a boom in overseas tourism in recent years. Long-haul flights from as far away as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Beijing increasingly fly visitors from Asia and the Middle East to the Hungarian capital, a relatively affordable but history-rich European destination.

Earlier, the news website Index.hu said one of those rescued was found near the Petofi Bridge, about 2 miles south of parliament.

Police have questioned the captain of the Viking ship, but no details have been released. Authorities said both vessels’ captains are experienced, with many years of service with their companies.

Relatives and a team of 25 official rescue workers were on their way from South Korea to Budapest on Thursday. The team of fire, navy and coast guard workers includes some who had been involved in rescue operations for the 2014 South Korean ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people — one of the country’s worst maritime accidents.

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Seoul’s presidential Blue House said President Moon Jae-in has called Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to discuss rescue operations. Moon thanked Orban for the Hungarian government’s rescue efforts and requested further support for efforts to find the missing, treat the survivors and recover bodies.

The Blue House said Orban told Moon that more than 200 divers and medical staff are involved in the rescue efforts and that officials are planning to hoist the ship.

Employees from the South Korean Embassy in Budapest were assisting Hungarian officials in identifying those rescued and the deceased.

Budapest’s Disaster Management Office chief, Col Zsolt Gabor Palotai, said that the Hungarian army is setting up a pontoon near the capsized ship’s wreck and that divers will go into the Danube from there.

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The Very Good Tour agency said the tourists left South Korea on May 25 and were supposed to return Saturday.

Most of them were family groups, and they included a 6-year-old girl. Her status wasn’t immediately clear, but she didn’t appear on a list of survivors provided by the tour agency.

Senior agency official Lee Sang-moo disclosed the identities of the seven rescued South Koreans — six women and one man, ages 31 to 66. The company is arranging for family members of the tourists to travel to Hungary as soon as possible.

The Hableany is described on the sightseeing company’s website as “one of the smallest members of the fleet.” It has two decks and a capacity for 60 people, or 45 for sightseeing cruises.

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Mihaly Toth, a spokesman for the Panorama Deck boating company, said the Hableany was on a “routine city sightseeing trip” when the accident happened. He told state television that he had no information about any technical problems with the boat, which he said was serviced regularly.

The Margaret Bridge connects the two halves of the city, Buda and Pest, with a large recreational island in the middle of the Danube. It is the bridge just north of the famous Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge originally built in the 19th century that, like the parliament, is a major tourist draw in the heart of the city.

Index.hu reported that other riverboats shined spotlights into the water to aid with the search and that a film crew operating on the Liberty Bridge farther down the river directed its lighting equipment toward the Danube to assist.


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