PHUKET, Thailand (AP) — Thai authorities on Friday evening suspended the search for missing tourists who were on a boat that sank during a storm off the southern resort island of Phuket, as the death toll rose to 33, all of them Chinese nationals.
The search for another 23 people still missing will resume at 5 a.m. Saturday, said Prapan Khanprasang, chief of the Phuket Provincial Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Office.
The accident appeared to be Thai tourism’s biggest disaster in years, and drew sharp attention from the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok. Visitors to Thailand from China totaled more than 9.8 million people in 2017, constituting the largest share by country of a record 35.38 million foreign tourists in all.
The death toll jumped after the navy sent divers to enter the wreck of the tour boat, which capsized and sank Thursday evening when it was hit by 5-meter (16-foot) -high waves. It was carrying 105 people, including 93 tourists, 11 crew and one tour guide. At least 12 of the injured were hospitalized.
In images Thursday after the sinking, rescued people sat in large rubber life rafts surrounded by churning seas. Wearing life jackets, the survivors were then moved to the deck of what appeared to be a fishing trawler.
As the seas calmed Friday, divers were transporting the bodies of the dead, including at least one child, from smaller boats to a larger ship taking part in the search effort.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand’s military government, expressed his “sympathies and deepest condolences” to the families of the dead.
The government will “exert all efforts to find those still missing and provide support to all survivors of this tragic event,” he said in a statement.
Reports in Thai media said police charged the owner and captain of the stricken ship with carelessness causing death and injury.
Chinese Ambassador Lyu Jian had an “emergency conversation” by phone with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, the Chinese Embassy said in a statement quoting the envoy calling on Thailand to quickly mobilize an intensive search for the missing and “to tend and make appropriate arrangements for the rescued Chinese tourists, treat and cure the injured and receive family members of the Chinese tourists involved.”
Ambassador Lyu said it hoped the cause of the capsizing would be quickly ascertained and asked Somkid to have the relevant Thai agencies closely cooperate with China on the matter.
Fatal accidents among foreign tourists at Thai beaches are not unusual, but normally involve drownings in unsafe swimming areas or accidents involving smaller boats.
Thai officials were rushing to cope with some of the logistics of the aftermath of the sinking.
At the request of Phuket’s governor, the Phuket Tourist Association was seeking 80 volunteer Chinese language translators to assist the outgoing Chinese passengers at the provincial airport.
Many of the victims had been on group tours, booked in Phuket and China.
The government of the eastern Chinese city of Haining in Zhejiang province said on its official microblog account that it received a distress alert sent by phone text message from the head of the Haining Haipai Furniture Co. Ltd., from Thailand Friday morning.
It said that 37 of the furniture company’s employees and family members had traveled together to Phuket and that on July 5 at around 5 p.m. they encountered the “biggest storm in five years” and they sought the government’s help. The group had booked their tours to the islands online on their own, said the posting.
A Chinese tour operator based in the central province of Hunan said on its official Sina Weibo account that three travelers it had booked were missing.
Lazy Cat Travel said it had sent personnel to Phuket to help out its clients, who also included 35 passengers who had to be rescued from another boat that it had chartered that ran into trouble on Thursday. It said that second boat had lost power after being swamped by waves. All on board were returned safely to shore.
The accidents came as rescuers, also led by Thai navy divers, support 12 boys and their soccer coach stranded nearly two weeks inside a flooded cave in the country’s far north, and try to determine how and when to extract them.