South Korean divers begin search for Hungary boat victims

Budapest (AFP) –


A team of South Korean divers tried Monday to reach a sunken sightseeing vessel in Budapest after its collision last week with a river cruise ship that killed seven tourists and left 21 people missing.

The reconnaissance dive was the first by a 27-man team sent by Seoul to help international divers and experts assessing ways of hoisting the submerged boat or searching for bodies presumed to be stuck inside.

The Mermaid boat carrying mainly South Korean tourists overturned and sank late Wednesday, seconds after colliding with the Viking Sigyn cruise ship on a busy stretch of the river in the heart of the Hungarian capital.

Strong currents and a water level swollen by weeks of rain have hampered the search for those missing -- 19 South Koreans and two Hungarians -- preventing divers from reaching the Mermaid which lies some nine metres below the surface.

Only seven people are known to have survived so far, with the prospects of finding any more of the passengers alive seen as very slim.

Those missing include a six-year-old girl, as well as the Mermaid's Hungarian captain and a crew member.

All of the seven bodies found so far were recovered within Budapest's city limits, with one discovered about 11 kilometres (seven miles) downstream of the accident site.

Police said Monday that a body had been found 100 kilometres from the collision site but did not confirm a media report that the body was that of a middle-aged Korean man.

Janos Hajdu, head of the rescue taskforce, told reporters that his team was mulling two strategies: bringing the bodies up before lifting the wreck, or bringing up the ship with the victims still inside.

"Until it is clear which approach is better we are following both in parallel," said Hajdu, head of Hungarian counterterror police.

Visibility under the surface is zero, while the high level and speed of the river makes approaching the boat potentially lethal, said Hajdu.

A Hungarian diver was almost swept away by the current Friday after an air cable on his equipment became caught on the ladder used by divers to descend, he added.

According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, Seoul has urged the Hungarian authorities to carry out an underwater search before an attempt is made to lift the boat.

The arrival of a crane large enough to lift the stricken Mermaid "will take days," said Hajdu.

The collision happened on a popular part of the river from where sightseers can view the city and parliament.