Bodies recovered as Danube boat raised in Budapest after 19 South Korean tourists died

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Four bodies were recovered from the wreckage of a tour boat that sank in the Danube River as it was lifted out of the water in the Hungarian capital today.

A huge floating crane, barges and rescue personnel were working early in the morning at Budapest’s Margit Bridge, where the Hableany (Mermaid) sightseeing boat sank on May 29 after colliding with a much larger river cruise ship.

The top of the Hableany was visible, as life jackets floated in the boat’s hull.

Divers were searching the boat for more victims and rescuers carried away four body bags on stretchers to a small police cruise boat waiting nearby.

Nineteen South Korean tourists and a Hungarian crewman have previously been confirmed dead, with eight people still missing.

Seven people were rescued after the nighttime collision amid heavy rain.

The lift is planned in several stages, depending on conditions such as the integrity of the hull and the discovery of bodies in the wreckage.

Rescuers plan to lift the Hableany using the floating crane and place it on a long barge. The boat will then be handed over to police investigating the collision.

Efforts to search for the missing victims of the accident and to raise the Hableany had been hindered by the Danube’s high springtime water levels – which are expected to fall significantly over the coming days in Budapest – and the river’s fast flow, as well as near-zero visibility under water.

The captain of the other ship in the collision, the Viking Sigyn, has been under arrest since June 1, suspected of endangering water transport leading to a deadly mass accident.

The Viking appeared to hit the Mermaid from behind, before the smaller Soviet-era vessel, which was carrying a total of 35 people, spun sideways on impact.

The Mermaid then capsized before sinking in just seven seconds on a fast-moving stretch of the river which has swollen during heavy downpours throughout May.

The wreckage of the 70-year-old Mermaid – which was refurbished in the 1980s – was found on the riverbed after several hours of searching near the Margaret Bridge, one of the main crossings connecting the two parts of the Hungarian capital.

A total of 33 South Koreans were on board with none wearing life jackets, officials from the country said.

Army divers joined police in the search operation, but the operation was complicated by high water levels and a fast-moving current after weeks of heavy rainfall.

A captain of a boat that was near the accident told online daily 24.hu at the time: ‘I am still in shock. I have never seen such horror in my life,’ the unnamed man was quoted as saying.

‘We were at the parliament when we heard that people were in the water – everyone stopped right away and started helping out.’

Police showed journalists security camera footage from a bridge showing the collision.

The Mermaid started to take on water before it was flipped over and started sinking as heavy storms raged in the Hungarian capital, local media reported.

In the hours following the incident, news website Index.hu said one of those rescued was found near the Petofi Bridge, which is about two miles south of Parliament.

Local media reported that one of the bodies was found several miles south of the collision location, although Gal declined to confirm. The temperature of the river water was between ten and 15 degrees.

The accident happened on a popular part of the Danube river for pleasure trips, from where passengers can view the city and parliament building illuminated at night.

The boat was regularly serviced and had no apparent technical faults, Mihaly Toth, a spokesman for Panorama Deck that owned the vessel, told the Hungarian news agency MTI at the time.

A team of South Korean officials went to Hungary to assist with the rescue operations and support passengers and their families.

The ministry, in a briefing after the crash, said the Seoul government would closely cooperate with Hungarian officials so the rescue efforts can proceed swiftly and effectively.

The Very Good Tour agency said the tourists left South Korea on May 25 and were supposed to return June 1.

Most of them were family groups, and they included a six-year-old girl who died.

Cruise line operator Viking said one of its ships, the Sigyn, was involved in the collision. It said no one aboard the its ship was injured. 

The boat that sank was identified as the Mermaid, which is described on the sightseeing company’s website as ‘one of the smallest members of the fleet.’ It has two decks and a capacity for 60 people, or 45 for sightseeing cruises.

The Margit Bridge – or Margaret Bridge – connects the two halves of the city, Buda and Pest, with a large recreational island in the middle of the Danube. 

It is the bridge just north of the famous Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge originally built in the 19th century that, like the Parliament, is a major tourist draw in the heart of the city.

In recent years, Budapest has emerged as a popular destination for film, television and other commercial video production.

Budapest has enjoyed a boom in overseas tourism in recent years. Long-haul flights from as far away as Dubai and Beijing increasingly fly visitors from Asia and the Middle East to the Hungarian capital, a relatively affordable but history-rich European destination.

Budapest’s airport said it handled a record number of travelers in 2018, with passenger numbers surging more than 13 percent to 14.9 million.

The Viking Sigyn, which left Budapest less than 48 hours after the collision with the Hableany, is back in Hungary on a scheduled trip and docked at the town of Visegrad, north of Budapest. 

Police said they carried out another inspection on the ship yesterday.     

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