Child among 11 bodies found after tour boat with 26 people sinks off Japan: “I know there is no hope”

Rescuers are searching since a tour boat with 26 people sank off northeastern Japan have found the body of an 11th victim – a child – as questions intensified as to why the vessel was sailing in severe weather at a known dangerous spot. Efforts to find survivors continued.

The baby was found late Sunday and later confirmed dead, the Coast Guard said Monday. The bodies of seven men and three women were found earlier Sunday.

Kazu 1 with two crew took 24 passengers, including two children, on a scenic trip in Shiretoko National Park on the north side of Hokkaido,

Japan tour boat
This photo released by the 1st Regional Japanese Coast Guard Headquarters shows an orange, square life-saving float with the name of a missing tour boat near the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Japan by Hokkaido on Sunday, April 24, 2022.

/ AP

Japan’s northernmost main island when it sent an emergency call Saturday afternoon saying it was sinking from its bow.

The location was near the Kashuni waterfall, which is known as a difficult place to maneuver both due to its rocky coastline and strong tides.

The Department of Transportation is investigating the boat’s operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, which had two accidents last year, including one that also involved the captain of the sunken boat. The ministry said it was examining safety standards and the decision to complete the trip despite severe weather on Saturday.

The Coast Guard said it prioritizes the search and rescue of the still missing while collecting evidence against making a criminal case on suspicion of professional negligence.

Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise had been instructed to improve its safety following the previous accidents. In June, a boat ran aground without causing damage, and in May, a boat collided with an object, slightly injuring three passengers. The accident in June involved the same captain on the sunken boat. The June case has been under consideration by local prosecutors for further criminal investigation, the Coast Guard said.

“We will thoroughly investigate what caused this situation and what kind of safety oversight was involved to allow the trip to prevent another accident,” Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito, who visited the area on Sunday, told reporters.

The Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise says its three-hour tour offers views of the west coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula and a chance to see whales, dolphins and brown bears. The National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the southernmost region for seeing drifting sea ice.

Cruise ship with 26 missing persons off Shiretoko
An aerial photo taken from Yomiuri’s jets shows a Japanese Coast Guard vessel searching for a tour boat missing in the waters off the Shiretoko Peninsula, a World Heritage Site.

Kanji Tada / AP

So far, company officials have not appeared in public to explain the accident. The travel company declined to comment over the weekend, and phone calls Monday from The Associated Press to its office went unanswered. Shari town, where the boat operator is based, says company officials are meeting with the families of the passengers at a facility in the town.

Reports said the child found Sunday was a 3-year-old girl whose parents were still missing.

Average sea temperatures in April in the area are just above freezing. Experts say the low temperature and strong winds make the chances of survival low.

The bodies found Sunday were found in the same area near the tip of the peninsula, about 14 kilometers north of where the boat sent an emergency call. Some were picked from the sea and others were found where they had washed up on the rocky shore.

Orange, square life rafts with the boat’s name on were also found on the rocks, the Coast Guard said. The Coast Guard said the operator told them everyone on the boat was wearing a life jacket, but some of the victims found were without them.

Experts and local fishermen and boat operators also say they believe the boat probably ran aground after it was thrown around in high waves and damaged.

High waves and strong winds had been forecast as the boat left port, and Japanese media said fishing boats had returned to port before noon on Saturday due to the bad weather.

The local leader of the fishing cooperative, Kazuhiko Fukayama, told NHK-TV that it was unthinkable that the trip had gone on in weather that was so harsh that passengers would have had difficulty just standing still.

A tour boat crew belonging to another operator told NHK that he warned the Kazu 1 crew about harsh seas and told them not to leave. He also said the same boat ran aground last year and got a crack in the bow.

Reports from local fishermen and tour boat operators suggest that Kazu 1 was the only boat in the area where no other boat was nearby to help the sinking boat until the first Coast Guard rescuers arrived at the site from elsewhere in Hokkaido three hours later.

Saturday’s trip was reportedly the first by the operator this season, and the accident just before Japan’s Golden Week holiday, which started in late April, could dampen local tourism, which fell during the pandemic. Japan is still largely closed to foreign visitors.

Deputy Chief of Staff Seiji Kihara told reporters on Monday that the government has instructed sightseeing tour operators across the country to conduct emergency inspections of their boats to ensure they are operating safely.

“I know there is no hope”

A man whose parents and brother were on the boat told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper that he had given them the trip as a gift.

“They may still be in the cold sea, but I pray for their safety,” he told the newspaper.

“I want to find out what happened to them as soon as possible, but I do not know what to do,” he added.

And the father of a passenger said his 22-year-old son had taken the trip with his girlfriend and had planned to date.

“I learned that my son had a ring with him and decided to propose to her on the trip as a surprise,” Tsuyoshi Suzuki told local Hokkaido Broadcasting station.

“I talked crying with her parents last night. We discussed how we really hope they get out of this together, not separately,” he said.

“I know there is no hope, but I just want them to be found together.”

AFP contributed to this report

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