Tourists describe 'people screaming in the water' in Hungary boat disaster

Budapest (AFP) –


Distraught river cruise holidaymakers described watching in horror as tourists from a sightseeing boat were swept into the cold, churning waters of the Danube after a collision that caused the small vessel to sink in a matter of seconds.

The Mermaid sightseeing boat with 35 people aboard capsized almost immediately after colliding with a huge cruise vessel after dark on Wednesday in heavy rain, leaving seven South Korean tourists dead and 21 others missing.

No one was injured on the 135 metre (440 foot) long, four-storey-high Viking Sigyn cruise ship and passengers said they did not even feel the impact of the smash.

"We were on our balcony, and we saw people in the water, screaming for help," said Ginger Brinton, a 66-year-old American tourist and Sigyn passenger.

"We never felt any bump. We didn't realise. We just saw people in the water. It was just terrible."

Hopes are fading that those still missing will be found alive the fast-moving Danube River, swollen by weeks of rain.

Those who did escape the waters have described flailing in terror in the swirling current as they waited for help as those around them struggled to keep their heads above water.

"The current was so fast and people were floating away but the rescue team did not come," a 31-year-old woman, identified only by her surname Jung, told the Yonhap news agency at a Budapest hotel where the survivors were taken.

Jung clung on to a rescue buoy and threw an attached rope to fellow passenger Yoon, 32, according to Yonhap.

- Boat 'flipped instantly' -

Most of the South Korean tourists on the Mermaid were in their 50s and 60s, although the youngest passenger in the group was a six-year-old girl travelling with her mother and grandparents. She remains missing.

The group were on a nine-day trip that included Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Germany.

Jung said she was among passengers on the deck taking photos of the city view at night when the boats collided.

Fellow survivor Yoon, who had been travelling with her mother, said the boat went down within seconds, tipping everyone from the deck into the river.

"The boat flipped instantly and capsized," she said.

Around 10 others who remained in the cabin were believed to have been unable to escape, she said.

Hungarian police said civilians had helped to rescue people from the water until the emergency services arrived at the scene.

Brinton said people were throwing life jackets and life savers into the water to try to help those from the capsized boat.

The survivors said the rescue operation began too late and raised questions over why the cruise went ahead in heavy rainfall.

"The relief team that showed up later just took people like me, who were already holding on to tubes, out of the water," said 60-year-old survivor surnamed Ahn.

- 'Never saw anybody come up' -

The Mermaid was on a "routine" sightseeing trip, a spokesman for its owner Panorama Deck told Hungarian news agency MTI. Those missing are 19 South Koreans, the Hungarian captain and a crew member.

The Sigyn's journey had just started in Budapest on Wednesday and was to take them along the Danube to Germany via Slovakia and Austria. According to police about 180 people were on the cruise.

The larger cruise ship was docked near the accident scene in the heart of Budapest on Thursday, with scratches visible on its bow.

Other cruise ship witnesses described how suddenly the Mermaid plunged into the river.

American tourist Clay Findley, 62, said he had come up on deck of the Sigyn to take pictures of the Hungarian parliament, while most others were still having dinner, when he saw the accident.

"I saw the boat turn over, with people in the back of it... It happened in like 10, 15 seconds. It was over just like that... I never saw anybody come up," he told AFP with tears in his eyes.

- 'Too many boats' -

Conflicting accounts have emerged of the collision, while sailors told AFP that there were too many vessels on the river, often with crews unable to communicate with each other due to language barriers.

Stanislav Makovsky, a Czech sailor whose boat was near the accident when it happened, said the Mermaid crossed the path of the Sigyn.

"It's very sad what happened. We must have rules... It's very dangerous in Budapest to sail," said the 35-year-old who has been sailing on the Danube for more than eight years.

"There are too many boats on the river," a Russian sailor from another ship said.

All day local people lined the riverbank near the accident site watching as an army vessel examined the sunken boat with sonar equipment to assess how to lift it.

Some passersby laid flowers for the victims.

"What a tragedy, they only came here for their holidays, to think of what happened to them is horrific," Maria Geller, 45, told AFP.