SCMP Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Tourists escape ferry blaze

STELLA LEE and GRETCHEN PETERS in Bangkok


Fifty-five tourists from Hong Kong escaped with their lives yesterday when flames engulfed a ferry within six minutes of it catching fire off Phuket.

The tourists, with 53 other holidaymakers and six Thai crew members, were rescued and put on other boats before the wooden, 30-metre King Cruiser went down about two nautical miles off the Thai holiday island in the Andaman Sea.

The accident happened 30 minutes after 55 members of two Hong Thai Citizens Travel tour groups and other tourists including Europeans, Americans and Japanese boarded the King Cruiser and set off from Phuket around 9.20am for the 1.5-hour trip to Koh Phi Phi.

One of the two Hong Thai tour leaders, Ko Shing-wai, 24, said: "The accident happened when another sightseeing ferry overtook us. Our bow ran into its stern. The crash was not serious but everyone felt it.

"As I was trying to find out what had happened from the captain on the upper deck, people on the lower deck were rushing upstairs after they saw smoke billowing out of the engine room at the rear of the lower deck. Since everyone gathered on the right side of the upper deck, the ferry started to lose balance."

Mr Ko said he and his colleagues asked passengers, including a handful of children, to keep calm and spread out across the upper deck. He said a barge tried and failed to offload passengers and then another sightseeing ferry came to the rescue.

"It took five minutes for everyone to get off. All the time the fire was spreading quickly and getting very close to the passengers. The whole vessel was in flames within six minutes.

"Myself and a Thai crew member were the last two to leave, after making sure everyone was safe. By the time the two of us fled, three-quarters of the ferry was ablaze."

An SAR tourist on board the rescue vessel said: "There was dense smoke and I saw people on my ferry running over to see what had happened. Our ferry went near the side of the burning vessel and crew members helped get the passengers over. The fire spread very quickly and we left the scene immediately after everyone was saved."

Mr Ko said passengers were later transferred to the ferry with which the tourists' vessel had collided. He said the group then continued their journey to Koh Phi Phi and all his tour members, who were on their second day of their Thai trip, were well except for two people who were in shock. The 55 SAR tourists returned to Phuket in the afternoon.

Thai police arrested captain Don Lornee, 44, and engineer Kalim Kongbamroong, 47, who have both been charged with negligence. However, Mr Ko said the captain had done nothing wrong. "The other vessel that overtook us caused the accident. I noticed that our captain tried to slow down and swerve to avoid a collision," Mr Ko said.

Both Mr Ko and other witnesses said they saw no police officers during the evacuation.

Hong Thai's general manager Susanna Lau Mei-sze said the firm was looking into the accident with Thai company Singh Thai, which owns the King Cruiser.

Marine Police Colonel Misakawan Buara, who led the rescue operation in the Andaman Sea, said about 10 passengers, who lost personal belongings when the vessel sank, returned to Phuket Island to report their losses to police.

The colonel described the fire as a freak accident, and insisted marine police made daily checks on ferry boats to ensure they were safe and carried enough lifejackets.