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Dive Asia survivors wrap up on Phuket after the belated rescue

Phuket Dive Asia Sinking: Probe Still Going On

Monday, March 8, 2010
ONE YEAR on, investigations are continuing into the Dive Asia 1 disaster in which seven people drowned off Phuket. There are, it seems, no obvious answers as to why an almost-new so called ''live-aboard'' vessel capsized and sank in a sharp Phuket storm that fateful night.

Around the world, the thoughts of family and friends of those who perished, and of those fortunate to survive, will be with the Dive Asia 1 boat on the bottom of the Andaman Sea today.

It will be a day of memories too for the management and staff of Phuket's Dive Asia diving company, with a small private ceremony planned.

A few days after the sinking, this reporter was on a recovery vessel when the bodies of five tourists were raised from their tomb inside the Dive Asia 1. It is not an event we are likely to forget.

Nor should Phuket authorities allow the deaths of six tourists and the boat's Thai cook to pass without an honest and thorough explanation.

Beginning with Phuket City police, the investigation of the sinking moved into the hands of Colonel Anukul Nuket, of Chalong police. His report has been sent to the office of Phuket's public prosecutor, but the public prosecutor wants more information.

The call for continued inquiries centres on the weather and the vessel itself, with more questions due for the Phuket Meteorological Office and Marine Transport, which approved the blueprint for the boat.

The behavior of management and staff at Dive Asia after the sinking was exemplary, yet the continuation of the year-long investigation is hampering the Phuket brand's full recovery.

Investigating officer Colonel Anukul said today that he believes Dive Asia 1 sank ''because of the weather,'' an answer that to this reporter, and apparently also to the public prosecutor, is too simple.

Yet the weather certainly had a major role to play. Perfect for the entire time that the live-aboard spent off the popular Similan islands, it rose up to smash into the boat not far off Phuket that Sunday night, soon after most on board had gone below decks to their bunks.

Those who survived had to fight their way up, scrambling across the walls as the boat heaved sharply to one side. Windows popped, water poured in.

Two liferaft deployed successfully, allowing the 23 survivors, all reasonably strong swimmers, to climb on board.

Their rescue was a botched affair. The liferaft were left to bob at sea, not that far off Patong it turned out, for hours longer than necessary. There was no aerial search mounted.

In the end, the survivors called in their own rescue, signalling a passing fisherman and using his mobile phone to alert Dive Asia to their plight.

Efforts seem to have been made since the sinking to improve Phuket's ability to mount a quick rescue, if there happen to be more incidents of this kind.

But many questions remain about the sinking itself, and about the adequacy of Phuket's weather alerts.

Dive boats have also grown taller in height as accommodation and amenities have been improved on the old-fashioned flat dive boats.

Yet side-on to one of Phuket's exceptional storms, the new, taller vessels appear to offer a significantly larger and more dangerous profile.

Two points remain clear: any boat that ventures forth on the Andaman Sea must be capable of withstanding the worst storms that the region can deliver. An adequate warning system that tells vessels when to expect these kinds of storms also seems to be essential.

We can't read the public prosecutor's mind, but we reckon that's likely to be a sound guess at his train of thought.

The captain on the Dive Asia 1 that night has moved on, and like the first engineer, has found work elsewhere on boats, Dive Asia spokesman and partner Jurgen Schenker told Phuketwan.

But the dive crew all returned and continued diving, he said.

''It's like after the tsunami,'' he said. ''The best therapy to cope is to get back in the water.''

Based in Kata, on Phuket's west coast, Dive Asia these days does day trips only. Their strong, loyal customer base has stuck close, coming back to a trusted brand.

One of the Dive Asia 1 survivors, Australian Mike Sampson, has even been back on trips twice.

Mr Schenker is also pleased that most of Dive Asia's 20 staff have stayed loyal. ''I'm very proud of all of them,'' he said.

The difficulty for the company is that a replacement boat cannot be purchased before the investigations come to a conclusion, he said. While he is keen to have the process take its proper course, there can be no new live-aboard until the investigation ends.

The insurance payout went to the boat's investors, Mr Schenker said, and new investors would have to be found for a new boat.

Phuket's diving industry appears to have survived the sinking, with the disaster seemingly having less effect than the global economic downturn.

Now tourists have returned in numbers, but with less to spend on diving and other holiday entertainment.

Mr Schenker, like the investigating officer, believes a sudden sharp Phuket squall was the cause of the disaster. Along with many others, he will be interested to hear the official version, when it finally comes.
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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We call it freak waves or scelerate waves and wave focal zones are particularly common in coastal areas where water depth variations and strong currents can result in dramatic focusing of wave energy.

This is what may have sunk the Dive Asia 1 last year between Phuket and Similan Islands.

South of Racha Noi Island is well know by fishermen about it.

Another key point is most steel boats built in Phuket are flat bottom boats as speedboats are built, but with two extra floors on top, they are dangerous in rough sea.

Posted by Whistle-Blower on March 8, 2010 12:31

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"...believe...sudden sharp squall..." Is this the way they do official investigations in Thailand? Are there already more than just believings?

Editor: We await the final report.

Posted by Michael Beer on April 10, 2010 06:28


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