The Japanese Coast Guard said on Sunday that rescue helicopters found 10 of the 26 people, seven men and three womenfrom a tourist boat that sank in the frigid waters of a national park in northern Japan, were confirmed dead.
The search for the others is still ongoing a day after the ship sent a distress call saying it was sinking.
The Transportation Ministry, meanwhile, has launched an investigation into the ship’s operator over its safety standards and its decision to sail despite bad weather on Saturday near the tip of the Shiretoko peninsula. The location is known as a difficult place to maneuver boats due to its rocky coastline.
“We will thoroughly investigate what caused this situation and what kind of security supervision was involved to allow the tour in order to avoid another accident,” Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito, who visited the area on Sunday, told reporters.
The ministry will also investigate whether or how Saturday’s accident was linked to two previous accidents involving the same ship last year, Saito said. He had instructed the operator to take steps to improve his safety following the incidents.
The coast guard confirmed that the same ship ran aground in the area last June, although no one was injured in that accident. In May, the ship collided with an object in the sea, causing minor injuries to three passengers.
Rescuers intensified their search early Sunday and found four people near the tip of the peninsula and five more in the same area a few hours later, but the coast guard said it could not confirm whether they were rescued alive. NHK public television said they were unconscious.
The coast guard said the 10 people were found in the area near the tip of the peninsula north of where the ship sent out a distress call on Saturday.
Footage on NHK showed one of the rescued people arriving by helicopter and being transferred to an ambulance on a stretcher, while rescuers held up blue plastic shields for privacy.
An orange, square-shaped lifesaving float bearing the ship’s name was also seen on the rocky shoreline.
The boat that carried 24 passengers, including two children, and two crew members disappeared after sending out a distress call, saying it took on water and was beginning to sink.
The first report of Sunday’s rescue came after nearly 19 hours of an intense search involving six patrol boats, several planes and divers. The coast guard said the search continued overnight and has since expanded, with local fishing and tourist boats joining the effort, while the Self-Defense Force sent a destroyer and three planes.
The 19-tonne Kazu 1 made an emergency call on Saturday afternoon, saying the ship’s bow had been flooded and it was beginning to sink and list, as it traveled off the western coast of the island’s Shiretoko Peninsula. northern Hokkaido, the coast guard said.
Since then, the tour boat has lost contact, according to the coast guard. Sixteen people are still missing. The coast guard said the operator told them that everyone on the boat was wearing a life jacket.
Average April sea temperatures in Shiretoko National Park are just above freezing.
An official with the ship’s operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, said he could not comment because he had to respond to calls from concerned families of passengers.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was attending a two-day summit in Kumamoto in southern Japan, canceled his program for a second day and returned to Tokyo. He told reporters in the early hours of Sunday that he instructed officials “to do everything possible for the rescue”.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation, but experts suspect there may have been safety negligence, and the ship ran aground and was damaged in rough seas in an area known for strong currents and a rocky coastline.
Strong waves and strong winds were observed in the area around noon, according to a local fishing cooperative. Japanese media reports said the fishing boats had returned to port before noon due to bad weather.
NHK said there was a warning for high waves of up to 3 meters (9 feet).
The crew of a tour boat belonging to another operator told NHK that they warned about rough seas when they saw the crew of the Kazu 1 and told them not to go. He said the same ship ran aground last year and suffered a crack in its bow.
Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor of marine science at Tokai University, said the ship likely ran aground after it was thrown into high waves and damaged, flooded and probably sunk. A tour boat of that size usually doesn’t carry a lifeboat, and passengers couldn’t possibly escape a rapidly sinking ship with its windows probably closed to protect them from strong winds.
In an interview with TBS television, Yamada said there was also a slight chance the boat could have been hit by a whale.
The cold temperature and strong wind could cause hypothermia and put passengers in severe conditions to survive, according to Jun Abe, vice president of the Society of Aquatic Rescue and Survival Research. “It’s a very serious condition, especially when they’re wet,” Abe told TBS.
According to the operator’s website, the tour lasts around three hours and offers panoramic views of the western coast of the peninsula and includes possible sightings of animals such as whales, dolphins and brown bears. The national park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous as the southernmost region to see drifting sea ice.
(with information from AP)
A tourist boat with about 30 people on board disappeared in northern Japan