Converted motorboat leaves passengers no exit when capsizing off Hoi An

By Nguyen Dong, Dac Thanh   February 28, 2022 | 12:56 am PT
Survivors and authorities have blamed the lack of emergency exits for an accident in which 17 were killed when a tourist motorboat capsized.

Around 2 p.m. last Saturday, a speedboat operated by Phuong Dong Company was carrying 39 people, including three crew members, from Cham Islands off Hoi An Town in central Vietnam to the shore when it was engulfed by large waves around three kilometers from Cua Dai Beach.

The accident left 17 dead and one missing as confirmed Monday afternoon. All are tourists from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

One of the survivors, Nguyen Tan Hiep, 50, said as the boat turned over, water filled it up quickly, trapping people inside.

Even as an experienced fisherman, Hiep had to struggle before he could escape through the boat's window.

When he returned to save his wife he could not find her. He was able to pull four others out but they had all stopped breathing by then.

Thirty-four people were brought to shore within Saturday and 13 were confirmed dead, including his wife. Three more bodies were found later on Sunday and one on Monday.

"They're dead because the speedboat was closed and as the water flooded in there was no way out," he said.

The motorboat that capsized off the Hoi An Town is pulled to shore February 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

The motorboat that capsized off the Hoi An Town is pulled to shore February 27, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

With several years of experience in organizing waterway tours and working as a boat captain, Dao Dang Cong Trung, 43, a Hoi An native, said the deadly accident happened because the boat is small (stretching ten meters long and three meters wide), has a closed top, and only two entrances, but carried up to 36 passengers.

All passengers were required to wear life jackets and when the water flooded in, floated up to inadvertently block their own means of escape.

In such a situation, "if the victims are not taken out in four-five minutes, there is no chance of saving them," he said.

Most of the boats used for transporting passengers to Cham Islands are converted motorboats with roofs that could carry 12-22 passengers and operate less than 12 nautical miles from shore.

After conversion, the boats are equipped with windows to carry more than 30 passengers and operate more than 12 nautical miles from shore.

But Trung said the hulls after conversion are still too small and with the arrangement of over 30 seats, there is no space for emergency exits or rescue equipment.

"Conversion causes the motorboats to have a heavier prow which is unsafe. This is a loophole in boat registration and inspection," said Trung.

As one of the rescuers who joined in to save the Blue Whale motorboat that sank in the waters off Cham Islands back in 2008, Trung said thanks to the open-top motorboats, passengers, who were wearing life jackets, managed to float, making it easier for rescuers to reach them.

"The conversion of motorboats only benefits businesses in the short term, but life-threatening accidents remain a potential risk," he stressed.

Nguyen Su, former party chief of Hoi An Town, said converted motorboats would shield passengers from winds and waves and save them from getting wet.

However, once accidents occur, it would be difficult for them to get out by themselves or for rescuers to save them since all windows are small and as regulated, must remain shut at all times.

"As the motorboats are sealed, the water has no place to escape, the oil spills out, giving little chance of survival for trapped victims."

The motorboats used in Hoi An Town before being converted in 2015. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

The motorboats used in Hoi An Town before being converted in 2015. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

In 2018 when the Ministry of Transport issued the regulation for the motorboat conversion, Hoi An authorities, businesses and sailors opposed the move but to no avail.

At a meeting with leaders of the National Traffic Safety Committee and the Ministry of Transport on the morning of Feb. 27, Nguyen Van Son, Hoi An chairman, reaffirmed that converted motorboats are not safe.

"We recommend the Ministry of Transport to review the current regulation on standards for converted boats," he said.

Sea areas from south-central Binh Dinh Province to southern Ca Mau Province and other sea areas of the East Sea, known internationally as the South China Sea, have experienced strong winds and rough seas for about a week.

Cham Islands, about 18 kilometers from Cua Dai Port in Hoi An, is a major tourist destination. It takes about 15 minutes to reach the islands from the shore by motorboat.

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