PHUKET/BANGKOK (Reuters) - The death toll from a tourist boat accident off the coast of Thailand’s Phuket island climbed to 41 on Saturday with 15 people still missing, officials said.
Rescuers have resumed a search for those still missing from the sunken vessel, the Phoenix, which capsized in rough waters on Thursday carrying 93 Chinese tourists and 12 Thai crew and tour guides in one of Thailand’s worst recent accidents.
Earlier in the day authorities said a hospital morgue in Phuket was running out of space and called on donors to help provide freezers for the bodies.
Forty-one of those on board have been confirmed dead and 49 rescued, officials said.
“Deceased: 41. Missing: 15,” the Thai government said in a statement.
The Phoenix sank after being hit by five-metre (16-ft) -high waves in a storm off Phuket, whose beaches and night life draw tourists.
Some Thais and tour operators have questioned why the boat was at sea during bad weather. The Chinese government has also pressed for a quick investigation into the cause of the accident, the Thai government’s media office in Phuket said.
Thai junta number two Prawit Wongsuwan has ordered an investigation into why the Phoenix appeared to have ignored a weather warning.
Ambulances unloaded bodies at the hospital on Phuket’s east coast that received most of the casualties, as staff escorted visibly distressed family members to a waiting room.
The hospital was storing some bodies in a makeshift morgue built from two refrigerated containers, a Reuters reporter at the site said.
“Urgent! The Chinese embassy is calling for 40 freezers,” the Thai government said in an appeal, urging potential donors to contact the hospital.
About 20 freezers have been donated, said Jessada Chokdamrongsook, a Health Ministry official.
Rear Admiral Charoenpol Kumrasri, a deputy commander of the Thai navy, who is helping to lead the rescue effort, said he was confident divers would complete their search of the sunken vessel by Saturday.
“After this evening, if we do not find any more missing in the wreckage, the missing will float to the surface and we will be able to find them,” he told reporters.
Tourism is a key driver of growth in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, making up 12 percent of gross domestic product, and the most foreign visitors come from China.
China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism on Saturday called on Thai tourism authorities to make the risks of travel, including weather conditions, clearer to tourists.
Thailand is in the middle of its rainy season, which usually runs from May to mid-October and often generates high winds and flash storms in coastal areas.
Accidents like the Phoenix disaster are bad for Thailand, said tourist police official Surachate Hakparn, addin: “We have to be more stringent.”
Thailand is already in the global spotlight as a multinational effort to rescue 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach trapped for days in a northern mountain cave picks up pace.
Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng, Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Pracha Hariraksapitak in BANGKOK, Philip Wen and Juarawee Kittisilpa in PHUKET; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alison Williams