TOKYO (AP) – Rescue workers said 10 people who were rescued on Sunday from the icy sea and rocky coast of a northern Japan national park died, a day after a tour boat with 26 aboard apparently sank in water. agitated, provoking questions as to why he was allowed to sail.
The search for the others is still ongoing after the boat sent a distress call Saturday afternoon saying it was sinking. The site, close to Kashuni Waterfall, is known as a difficult place for boats to maneuver due to its rocky coastline and strong tide.
There were two crew and 24 passengers, including two children, on the 19-ton Kazu 1 when it ran into trouble traveling off the west coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. The coast guard said the 10 victims – seven men and three women – were adults.
The Transport Ministry has opened an investigation into the boat’s operator, who suffered two accidents last year. The ministry said it was reviewing safety standards and the decision to carry out the tour despite bad weather on Saturday.
The operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, was instructed to take steps to improve its safety following previous accidents in which it ran aground in June without causing injury, and another in May when three passengers suffered minor injuries when the boat collided with an object.
“We will thoroughly investigate what caused this situation and what kind of security supervision was involved to allow the tour in order to avoid another accident,” Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito, who visited the area on Sunday, told reporters.
After an intensive search involving six patrol boats, several aircraft and overnight divers, rescuers early Sunday found four people near the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula and then six more in the same area, about 14 kilometers down north of where the boat sent out a distress call. Some of them were pulled out of the sea, while others were washed ashore the rocky shore.
An orange, square lifebuoy bearing the boat’s name was also found near the rocks, the coast guard said.
Footage from public broadcaster NHK showed one of the victims arriving in a helicopter and being transferred to an ambulance on a stretcher. Rescue workers erected blue plastic shields to protect the victim’s privacy.
The tour vessel made an emergency call early Saturday afternoon, saying her bow had flooded and was starting to sink and pitch, the coast guard said. Contact with the boat had already been lost. The coast guard said the operator told them that everyone on the boat was wearing life jackets, but some of the victims found were without them.
Average sea temperatures in April in Shiretoko National Park are just above freezing, which experts say would cause hypothermia.
“It’s a very serious condition, especially when they’re wet,” Jun Abe, vice president of the Society of Water Rescue and Survival Research, told TBS TV.
Yoshihiko Yamada, professor of marine science at Tokai University, said the boat likely ran aground after being thrown into high waves and damaged. A boat that size usually doesn’t carry a lifeboat, he said.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida interrupted his participation in a two-day summit in Kumamoto, southern Japan, and returned to Tokyo. He told reporters earlier on Sunday that he had instructed authorities “to do everything they can for the rescue.”
The cause of the accident is under investigation, but authorities and experts suspect safety negligence.
High waves and strong winds were forecast as the boat set sail and Japanese media reports said the fishing boats had returned to port before noon on Saturday because of bad weather.
A tour boat crew belonging to another operator told NHK they had warned the Kazu 1 crew of rough seas and told them not to go. He also said the same boat ran aground last year and suffered a crack in the bow.
Saturday’s tour was the operator’s first this season, and the accident just before Japan’s Golden Week holidays starting in late April could hurt local tourism, which has slumped during the pandemic. Japan is still largely closed to foreign visitors.
Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki told reporters on Sunday that he planned to request security checks by tour operators in the prefecture before the holidays.
According to the operator’s website, the tour lasts about three hours and offers panoramic views of the peninsula’s west coast and the chance to see whales, dolphins and grizzly bears. The national park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous as the southernmost region to see drifting sea ice.