HA LONG BAY, Vietnam – Vacationers from the U.S., Britain, Australia, Japan, Russia, France, Sweden and Switzerland died along with their Vietnamese tour guide Thursday in Vietnam’s deadliest tour boat accident since the country opened to foreign visitors 25 years ago, the Assosiated Press reports. All were sleeping on the overnight ship, which was anchored in about 30 feet (10 meters) of water near a small island.
Nine foreigners and six Vietnamese survived only by flinging themselves overboard and swimming to other tour boats anchored nearby.
Ha Long Bay is one of the country’s top tourist attractions, drawing more than 5 million visitors a year to the province where 1,600 stunning jagged rock formations rise out of the bay, forming tiny islands. Many visitors stay overnight on wooden boats equipped with sleeping cabins and eating quarters.
Police are investigating what caused the accident, and a Vietnamese official called for checks on safety of the more than 100 tour boats that ply the bay.
According to AP, survivors reported seeing a wooden plank ripping away from the ship around 5 a.m., followed by gushing water inundating the boat and quickly pulling it under near Titov island, about an hour from mainland’s shore, said Vu Van Thin, chief administrator of Quang Ninh province. The boat was still anchored from the night when it sank.
Several feet of the masts were still visible, and Thin said crews were working to bring in a crane to pull the boat out. Divers worked to free the bodies still inside Thursday morning.
There were 27 people, including six crew members, aboard the boat and all have been accounted for, Thin said. The vessel, which is owned by Truong Hai Co., was anchored alongside dozens of other cruise boats and weather conditions were calm at the time of the sinking.
The dead have been sent to Bai Chay Hospital for identification, where survivors received treatment for minor injuries, said Ngo Van Hung, director of Ha Long Bay’s management board.
The official Vietnam News Agency published the victims’ names and ages, most of them aged 20 to 25, seven were women. They include a Briton, two Americans, one Japanese, one French, two Swedes, two Russians, one Swiss and one person of Vietnamese origin living in Australia, according to the government.
“This is a very rare and very unfortunate accident,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga. She said tour companies should improve safety measures in Ha Long Bay.
Police have launched a criminal investigation into the cause of the accident, which remained unclear Thursday.
Bai Chay Hospital deputy director, Giang Quoc Duy, said survivors “were in a panic.”
“They were given first aid treatment and have already returned to their hotels,” he said.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry confirmed the survivors as two Danes, one German, two Italians, one American, one Australian, one French and one Swiss.
Ha Long Bay, a U.N. World Heritage site dotted with limestone formations, is located near the Chinese border in the Gulf of Tonkin about three hours east of the capital, Hanoi.
More than 100 cruise boats are licensed to offer overnight service there, and last year the province received 5.4 million visitors, nearly half of them foreigners, according to government websites.
The bay has seen boats go down in the past. In 2009, a tour boat sank during a storm, killing five, including three foreign vacationers. In 2006, a powerful wind storm capsized several boats, killing 13 people, though no tourists were among the dead. In 2002, strong winds capsized two tourist boats, killing several foreigners.