10 found dead after Japan tour boat with 26 on board sank
Rescuers said 10 people who were picked up from the freezing sea and rocky coast of a national park in northern Japan on Sunday had died, a day after a tour boat with 26 people on board apparently sank in rough waters, sparking questions about why it was allowed to sail.
The search for the others is still ongoing after the boat sent out a distress call on Saturday afternoon saying it was sinking. The location, near Kashuni Waterfall, is known as a difficult place to maneuver boats due to its rocky coastline and high tide.
There were two crew and 24 passengers, including two children, on the 19-tonne Kazu 1 when it ran into trouble during a voyage off the west coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. The Coast Guard said all 10 victims — seven men and three women — were adults.
The Department for Transport has launched an investigation into the operator of the boat, which had two accidents last year. The ministry said it was reviewing safety standards and the decision to carry out the tour despite bad weather on Saturday.
The operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, had been instructed to take action to improve its safety following previous accidents in which it ran aground in June with no injuries, and another in May, when three passengers were slightly injured when the boat collided with an object.
“We will thoroughly investigate the causes of this situation and what kind of security surveillance is needed to allow the visit to avoid another accident,” Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito, who is on the scene, told reporters. traveled to the area on Sunday.
After an intensive search involving six patrol boats, several planes and divers that made it through the night, rescuers found four people early Sunday near the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula and later six more in the same area, about 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) north of where the boat made a distress call. Some of them were torn out of the sea, while others washed up on the rocky coast.
An orange-colored, square-shaped rescue float bearing the boat’s name was also found near the rocks, the coast guard said.
Footage shown on public broadcaster NHK showed one of the victims arriving by helicopter and being transferred to an ambulance on a stretcher. Rescuers held up blue plastic shields to protect the victim’s privacy.
The tourist vessel made an emergency call early Saturday afternoon, saying its bow was flooded and it was starting to sink and heel over, the coast guard said. Contact with the boat had since been lost. The Coast Guard said the operator told them everyone on the boat was wearing life jackets, but some of the victims found were not.
Average April sea temperatures in Shiretoko National Park are just above freezing, which experts say would cause hypothermia.
“It’s a very serious condition, especially when they’re wet,” Jun Abe, vice president of the Society of Water Rescue and Survival Research, told TBS TV.
Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor of marine science at Tokai University, said the boat likely ran aground after being buffeted by high waves and damaged. A boat that size doesn’t usually carry a lifeboat, he said.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cut short his attendance at a two-day summit in Kumamoto, southern Japan, and returned to Tokyo. He told reporters early Sunday that he had asked officials “to do whatever they can for the rescue.”
The cause of the crash is under investigation, but authorities and experts suspect a safety breach.
High waves and strong winds were expected when the boat left and Japanese media reported that the fishing boats returned to port by noon on Saturday due to bad weather.
A tour boat crew belonging to another operator told NHK they warned the crew of Kazu 1 of rough seas and told them not to go. He also said the same boat ran aground last year and suffered a crack in the bow.
Saturday’s tour would have been the operator’s first this season, and the crash just before Japan’s Golden Week holiday from late April could dampen local tourism, which has slumped during the pandemic. Japan is still largely closed to foreign visitors.
Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki told reporters on Sunday that he planned to request security checks from tour operators in the prefecture ahead of the holiday.
According to the operator’s website, the tour lasts around three hours and offers panoramic views of the peninsula’s west coast and a chance to see whales, dolphins and brown bears. The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous as the southernmost area to see drifting sea ice.