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Survivor Mike Sampson plans to dive again soon

Aussie Dive Survivor Tells: 'I Walked the Walls'

Saturday, March 14, 2009
Phuketwan Calls for Independent Inquiry

MIKE Sampson's shaved head is still peeling, the kind of holiday skin complaint many tourists develop while having fun in and around Phuket.

However, this burst of sunburn did not come from a regulation overdose in a day at the beach.

The Australian's skin turned red while he bobbed on a life raft for more than 13 hours, having narrowly escaped becoming entombed in a sinking liveaboard diveboat.

Struck by a savage storm on Sunday evening, the MV Dive Asia 1 went down within minutes in sight of the holiday town of Patong, trapping five tourists inside.

The bodies of two more victims have since been found.

Soon after the 52-year-old IT security expert went to bed last Sunday night, as the boat sailed back from a five-night diving expedition around the Similan islands, the real-life nightmare began.

''It had been a glorious day,'' he said, sitting in a Patong coffee shop. ''The diving was superb and the weather had been perfect.

''I must have gone to bed about 10.50 pm. Suddenly the boat listed 20 or 30 degrees, and I waited for it to right itself. It didn't.

''It went over further, too far. I knew I had to get out. I climbed up, out of my cabin through the door, then walk along the wall of the walkway.

''My cabin was on the lowest of three decks, about sea level. I had to climb a spiral staircase to get out.

''But the wall was now the floor. To get onto the staircase, I had to hoist myself up to shoulder height.

''Someone behind me helped to shove me up. They were anxious to get out, too. From the dive deck, we managed to jump into the sea.''

As Sampson bobbed in the waves in a driving storm, continuous bolts of lightning illuminated the last moments of the MV Dive Asia 1 before it slipped to the seabed.

''Within about two minutes, the boat capsized keel up,'' Sampson said. ''Then about two minutes later, it sank.''

Two large circular life rafts had been deployed and the survivors climbed into them, one by one. Eventually, there were 19 people bobbing on the rafts.

One real hero emerged. Christian Diermaier, a German diving instructor, saw a couple of life rings lit up in the dark some distance away, jumped back into the water, and returned with four more people.

They were the last. As the storm eased and the people in the two rafts could hear each other, they called out each other's names and did the sums.

Twenty-three people on board. Seven missing.

The storm hit so suddenly and with such intensity there was apparently not even time for the captain to make a mayday call.

But the rafts, now tethered together, were bobbing in a popular stretch of water, within sight of Phuket. Rescue could be expected any minute, the survivors thought.

A sailing ship was spotted in the dark, a flare was fired. No reponse. ''The people on the yacht were probably asleep,'' Sampson said.

Daylight came. Still nothing.

Back on Phuket, the alert was finally raised about 8am when Dive Asia staff went to Chalong pier to pick up the returning voyagers.

After the boat docks around 2am, the divers are usually left to sleep in their cabins until later.

There was no inkling of the sinking until nine hours after the tragedy. And a search for the vessel, or survivors, appears to have been initiated in the wrong area.

It was not until about noon that the crew on a small fishing boat responded to the flash of a special mirror that Sampson used to attract their attention. It was part of the emergency equipment on the life rafts.

However, the fishing boat was small, so the life rafts had to continue to bob in the heat because there was no room for the survivors on board.

At 2pm, six hours after the alarm was raised, a marine police boat motored to the three craft. By 4.30pm, the survivors were on dry land having their cuts, bruises and sunburn treated.

Apart from questions about the time it took for a rescue to be completed, an independent inquiry should examine how a boat that was launched in October could sink so quickly in a storm.

It is thought the MV Dive Asia was toppled by a gale blowing in one direction and strong waves pounding the base in the other direction.

One of the other divers on board related an even more dramatic escape.

''The window on her cabin burst from the pressure and water rushed in,'' Sampson said. ''She managed to find a pocket of air trapped in the closet, took a deep breath, then when water filled her cabin, swam out through the window.''

Sampson, the only Australian among Austrians, Germans, Swiss and Japanese, lost his much treasured Macbook Pro, an iPhone, and a collection of personal diving gear, as well as all his clothes.

At first he planned to keep the rescue mirror as a memento, but he ended up giving it to the fishing boat captain who provided the survivors with iced water and used his mobile telephone to raise the alarm.

Fortunately Sampson's passport, and a camera he had forgotten, were locked in a safe back at a guesthouse in Patong.

However, the key went down with the ship. It took two days to open the safe.

On Thursday, a team of highly specialised technical divers fetched the bodies of two Austrians, two Swiss and a Japanese from the wreck, 71 metres down.

The body of an Austrian woman was found floating on Tuesday and the missing Thai cook was found floating about 70 kilometres from the wreck yesterday.

The 13 surviving divers (there were 11 crew and instructors) have either headed home on schedule or are staying to complete their holidays.

Sampson, wearing clothes purchased with a handout of 5000 baht from the dive company to each of the survivors, hopes to dive again next week.

He has faith in the professionalism of Dive Asia and was one of the first to test out the MV Dive Asia 1, back in November, on the boat's second voyage.

Survivors of the disaster can be thankful that the storm did not come an hour later, when almost everyone would have been asleep and below decks.

An independent inquiry should now be carried out to investigate every aspect of the tragedy.

One simple fact: divers on the Andaman coast are actually safer making a dive than they are on the trip to and from the Similans, at the wrong time.

Why? Because diving is tightly regulated and regimented to ensure the equipment works every time, and to remove all predictable risks.

Maritime authorities do not take the same approach above the water. It is time they did.

The crash of Flight 269 in 2007 at Phuket airport, with 90 killed, was caused in part by a ferocious gust of wind that drove the aircraft into the tarmac.

The same changeable savagery this time has caused the deaths of seven people, six divers and a liveaboard crew member.

Those of us who looked on as the bodies of five of them were recovered from the depths on Thursday never want to be present at another bodies recovery.

The only way to ensure no more divers die unnecessarily, and to ease all the concerns now rippling through the dive industry, is to hold a thorough, independent inquiry.

Deciding who should undertake the investigation must become the first important task of Phuket's new Governor, who starts work this week.

Sinking of the MV Dive Asia 1


March 4
Dive boat MV Dive Asia 1 with 19 tourists and 11 crew aboard leaves Chalong pier for a five-night liveaboard trip to the Similan Islands.

March 8
4.30pm A boat carrying three men capsizes in a storm off Phuket's south shore. Two men, Jidtapon Taveeworaparsert and Sittichai Tanadpirom, swim to safety on Koh Bon and alert the authorities that Atakorn Jaiboon is missing.
10pm The MV Dive Asia 1 departs from the Similans in calm seas to return to Phuket.
11pm A savage squall strikes and passengers on board are thrown into the water without warning. The boat capsizes and sinks within minutes. Twenty-three people scramble into inflatable life rafts and drift with the dinghies tied together through the night.

March 9
8am Dive Asia staff arrive at Chalong pier to meet the boat that was due back to shore between 2am and 4am but are unable to find it. They alert Royal Thai Navy that the boat is missing.
Noon Survivors are spotted in the water by a fishing boat, all essentially intact.
2pm A Marine Police boat intercepts the fishing boat and survivors are taken aboard. Calls between rescue personnel and Dive Asia confirm that seven people, six tourists and a Thai staffer, are missing.
4.05pm The Marine Police boat arrives back at Phuket's Deep Sea Port and the 23 survivors are debriefed and taken for treatment of sunburns and minor injuries.
4.35pm A Navy helicopter spots a body floating on the surface of the water. Officers in the helicopter give the coordinates to Marine Police, but only a life jacket is found.
6.30 pm The sunken boat is located by sonar by Navy boat "Pahruhat" off Phuket, at a depth of 71 metres.

March 10
6am Search vessels resume the hunt for more possible survivors.
7am A body is seen on the water from the Navy helicopter and recovered by Marine Police about four kilometres away from the previous sighting.
1pm The recovery boat arrives back at the Deep Sea Port of Phuket and the body is transferred to Vachira Hospital, where it is identified as Austrian tourist Gabrielle Jetzinger.
The body of Atakorn Jaiboon, who was aboard the small boat off Rawai with two others, is found by rescue officials.

March 11
Noon Four specially-trained technical divers descend to the sunken boat in search of the missing.
4.10 pm Divers report that four bodies are found inside the wreck of the MV Dive Asia 1 on the floor of the ocean off Patong. Positional records lead police to conclude that the bodies are those of two Austrians and two Swiss. Two men, a Thai staffer and a Japanese tourist, remain missing.

March 12
11.05am Technical divers begin their descent to the sunken boat to recover four bodies and to search for the two still missing.
12.25pm Five bodies are recovered and taken back to Phuket for identification. The first Austrian victim found is cremated about the same time the five bodies arrive back on shore.

March 13
6.20pm Body found floating about 50 kilometres off Mai Khao beach and Phuket Airport is lifted onto a marine boat. Preliminary identification from boardshorts is that it is the missing Thai cook.

Phuketwan Dive Boat File


Update: 'Body of Missing Cook' Found at Sea
Dive Boat Latest Cook Jumpa Sorntat was so dedicated to his job on a dive boat that he may have chosen to stay on the sinking vessel at the cost of his life, Phuketwan has learned.
Update: 'Body of Missing Cook' Found at Sea

Boat Sinking Update: Five Bodies Recovered
Boat Sinking Latest Divers have recovered five bodies from inside the sunken MV Dive Asia 1. They have been transported back to Phuket for identification.
Boat Sinking Update: Five Bodies Recovered

Latest: Divers Find Boat Four in Seabed 'Tomb'
Dive Sinking Latest Four of the seven missing dive boat victims have been found still in the boat on the ocean bottom off Phuket. They are believed to be two Austrians and two Swiss.
Latest: Divers Find Boat Four in Seabed 'Tomb'

One Body Found: Search For Survivors Continues
Search Latest One body has been found and six are still missing after a dive boat sank in a savage storm between the Similan islands and Phuket. Navy and marine police boats are scouring the seas.
First Light Sees Search for Survivors Resume

Nightmare at Sea: How a Dive Boat Disappeared
The Boat Vanishes Long a Phuket resident, Jurgen Schenker of Dive Asia grew concerned when a dive boat failed to return to Chalong pier. Here is his first hand account of what happened.
Nightmare at Sea: How a Dive Boat Disappeared

Squall Tipped Boat Without Warning: Survivor
Dive Boat Drama Survivors reached port in Phuket this afternoon to relate their accounts of the sinking of a dive boat in the dark. But seven, named below, are still missing.
Squall Tipped Boat Without Warning: Survivor

Storm Sinks Similans Dive Boat: Seven Missing
Dive Boat Sinking A storm off the Similan islands sank a dive boat last night. The boat included Australians, Austrians, Germans, Swedes, Japanese and Thais. Seven are unaccounted for.
Storm Sinks Similans Dive Boat: Seven Missing

Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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This makes no sense at all and it is obvious you don't understand the dive industry at all.
"One simple fact: divers on the Andaman coast are actually safer making a dive than they are on the trip to and from the Similans, at the wrong time.
''Why? Because diving is tightly regulated and regimented to ensure the equipment works every time, and to remove all predictable risks."

Editor Seven people have died this week. Are you saying that more people have died under the water recently in unreported diving mishaps? The problems of the diving industry are all on the water, not under it.

Posted by HippyChick on March 14, 2009 11:43

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I hope there is proper recognition given to the crew of the little fishing boat who were able to prevent the survivors from suffering a much more prolonged ordeal adrift at sea. Thanks to them for keeping such a good watch and seeing the signal from the rafts, then immediately rendering all possible assistance without concern for the disruption to their own voyage. These kind fishermen played a vital role in the enormous search and rescue effort.

In the event of an inquiry, I hope it would not be simply an exercise of placing blame, but that it would work hard to publicise valuable lessons from this ordeal. And not only finding matters that could be improved in future (either to prevent or to respond to emergencies), but also telling people the many factors that increased the chances of survival during this sinking.

Posted by Joan Kelly on March 15, 2009 15:19

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I am saying this is so not true with ALL shops: diving is tightly regulated and regimented to ensure the equipment works every time. WHO WOULD BE DOING THE REGULATION OF ALL DIVING EQUIPMENT? Some dive shops are very good at this, but don't be fooled: there is no regulation.

Posted by HippyChick on March 15, 2009 17:33

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It should be noted that the divers who retrieved the bodies were all volunteers! Professional Technical divers (foreigners) living in Phuket.
This was never mentioned in any of the stories on any news reports.
Here are a few details first hand to me.
Altogether 4 days of diving to 70m, 40 minutes bottom time and 2-3 hours decompression time. [Minutes waiting to surface because of the depth of the dive]. Very cold water temp and bad visibility with currents up to 1.5 knots.
As far as I know the Thai Navy didn't get in the water

Posted by VFaye on March 15, 2009 17:39


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