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Colonel Wanchai Ekphornpich at Phuket City police station

Phuket Policeman Heads Dive Disaster Inquiry

Friday, April 3, 2009
The Sinking of MV Dive Asia 1

A POLICE Superintendent from Phuket City, Colonel Wanchai Ekphornpich, is heading the investigation into the sinking of MV Dive Asia 1, in which seven people died.

Phuketwan interviewed the colonel at his desk in the Phuket City police headquarters. On the wall was a panoramic photograph of a large waterfall.

The colonel and his investigation team have so far interviewed 23 survivors from the sinking and concluded that the liveaboard vessel was sunk by a pha-yu-mhoon, a ''seasonal tropical storm.''

Colonel Wanchai said that the captain was the only member of the crew awake at the time the storm struck, about 10.50pm on March 8.

The survivors were a mix of tourist passengers, crew and dive instructors.

Colonel Wanchai said the indentity of all seven victims had been confirmed by DNA, dental records and/or fingerprints. The identification process met disaster victim identification standards, he said.

Since the bodies had been returned to relatives, he had had no further involvement with the respective embassies. (Three of the dead were Austrian, two were Swiss, one was Japanese. The seventh victim was the cook on the boat, a Thai.)

Colonel Wanchai said he was sending letters to the Marine Police, the Royal Thai Navy, the Marine Department and the Bureau of Meteorology, inviting them to contribute to the investigation.

The letters request information about the registration, the licence, the design plan blueprint for the recently-launched boat, and the weather at the time of the sinking.

People who were on other boats in the area that Sunday evening and possibly deep sea divers who have been down to the wreck on the ocean floor may also be asked to contribute statements, he said.

Because the MV Dive Asia 1 is more than 70 metres below the surface, the boat is unlikely to ever be recovered. Divers would be sent to investigate the vessel if that proved necessary, he added.

Colonel Wanchai said he was appointed as investigator by Phuket Police Chief Major General Apirak Hongtong, who is about to take up a new post in Surat Thani province.

The tourists and crew were interviewed soon after being rescued on March 9, and most if not all of the visitors have probably since returned to their home countries.

''Justice will come for the relatives of the victims,'' he said. ''And for those who survived the ordeal, and for all involved.

''Once we have all the evidence, we will decide whether it is a matter that needs to be resolved in court.''

Investigations are continuing, so Colonel Wanchai said he is not able to reveal details of what had been revealed in the case so far.

He said about 80 percent of inquiries had been carried out. It could be a month or perhaps more before the investigation is complete.

The Marine Department has told Phuketwan that all the vessel's paperwork was in order.

The boat's captain, Chakhee Leechoi, 45, told reporters after the rescue that he had had no time to react because the storm hit the vessel so quickly.

Survivors have said the boat tipped over severely then capsized within two minutes and was headed for the seabed within two more minutes.

No weather warning was issued. While there were storms in the region, that evening appeared clear and relatively calm as the boat made its way back to Chalong pier from a Similans islands dive voyage.

Some media reports have said categorically that the boat was hit by a ''water spout.'' The Dive Asia online chronology of the incident says: ''After entering a sudden thunderstorm, the boat was hit by a vortex and capsized. There were no high waves. The wind was why the boat capsized.''

The boat went down about 20 kilometres off Phuket, within sight of Patong.

After the alarm was raised around 8am on the day after the sinking, the survivors spent six hours in two liferaft awaiting rescue.

Eventually the survivors managed to attract the attention of a fishing boat and a search vessel was called to the precise location of the liferaft.

Phuketwan believes the rapidity of the sinking, the likelihood of similar weather conditions reoccuring along the coast, the lack of any kind of alarm, and the reasons why the rescue operation took so long all raise questions that require answers.

The sinking and seven fatalities highlight safety issues of concern to everyone connected with diving and water-borne tourism and all who travel on the seas around Phuket.

Phuketwan Dive Boat File

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