Thai rescuers pulled 21 bodies from waters off the coast of the holiday island of Phuket on Friday after a tourist boat went down in heavy seas with dozens of Chinese passengers on board.
The dead were found drifting face down in the water, still wearing life jackets, several kilometres (miles) from where the Phoenix sank after being hit by five-metre (15-foot) high waves in a storm on Thursday evening.
In a grisly development, divers reported seeing “over 10 bodies” floating inside the hull of the submerged boat, according to Thai navy Rear Admiral Charoenphon Khumrasee, who said they would try to retrieve them later Friday.
One survivor, a Chinese woman, was rushed to hospital in Phuket, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, after she was found several kilometres from the boat, floating near the bodies of fellow passengers. Her condition was unknown.
The boat was carrying 105 passengers, mostly Chinese tourists, when it sank.
A total of 56 passengers were reported missing as of Friday morning before the recovery effort began, with the Phoenix looking set to be one of the worst boat disasters in recent Thai history.
The boat sank 40 metres below the surface of the Andaman Sea, a few kilometres off the coast of Koh He, an islet known for its coral formations and popular with day-trippers from the tourist magnet of Phuket.
A stream of full body bags were brought to shore at Chalong pier in Phuket and taken to a nearby hospital for identification, according to the Public Health Ministry.
Helicopters continued to scan the water Friday afternoon in what appeared to be an increasingly forlorn hunt for survivors.
“I’m not really sure how many will survive,” a grim-faced Noraphat Plodthong, the governor of Phuket, told reporters.
The Phoenix hit trouble in bad weather Thursday evening, sparking a rescue attempt that took place in the dark.
Some 48 people — passengers and crew — were rescued and one body found before the operation was suspended overnight.
Stunned survivors huddled in blankets on a Phuket pier late Thursday.
Some cried while others appeared dazed as they walked around still wearing their life vests.
Thai junta number two Prawit Wongsuwon ordered an investigation into why “the boat went to sea” despite a weather warning of strong wind.
The Phoenix was among several boats that appeared to have ignored a warning in place since Wednesday not to take tourists on day-trips to the islands that dot the seas off Phuket.
Several other vessels hit trouble late Thursday, but all of their passengers were rescued.
Thailand is already in the global spotlight for a dramatic rescue mission in the north of the country, after 12 boys and their football coach were trapped in a cave complex.
A Chinese consular official arrived at the operations centre in Phuket to monitor the rescue effort.
Phuket draws hordes of overseas visitors including Western sun-seekers and huge numbers of Chinese tourists who make up the nearly a third of the 35 million people expected to visit Thailand this year.
Last year 9.8 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, with five million more arriving between January and May this year.
Thailand has a poor health and safety record and accidents are common on its roads and busy waterways — especially in tourist areas during the monsoon season which is now biting.-AFP