Hungarian police have taken the captain of a luxury river cruiser that collided with a tour boat on the River Danube in Budapest into custody, after the accident sank the smaller vessel, leaving at least seven people dead and 21 still missing.
Disaster struck late on Wednesday night when the 443-ft Viking Sigyn, a Swiss-registered cruise boat, struck a far smaller sightseeing vessel carrying 33 South Korean tourists and two crew as the two attempted to pass under a bridge spanning the river by the Hungarian parliament.
The Sigyn, which was on route to Passau in Germany, suffered only minor damage to its hull. Attila Boros from Hungary’s National Police Headquarters confirmed on Thursday that a formal investigation had been launched and the captain and crew of the Sigyn questioned about the causes of a disaster that has stunned Hungary.
Video of the incident released by Hungarian police shows the Sigyn hitting the Mermaid, the sightseeing boat, from the stern. The Sigyn then rolls over it, sending it to the bottom of the Danube in seconds.
“Both ships were heading north and when they arrived between two pillars of the Margit Bridge, but for some reason the Mermaid turned in front of the Viking ship,” said Colonel Adrian Pal of the police.
“As the Viking comes into contact with it, it overturns it and in about seven seconds, as it turned on its side, it sank."
Rescuers believe that given the speed of the collision nobody on board the Mermaid had a chance to don a lifejacket, and that anybody not on the boat’s open deck probably went down with the vessel.
Viking said in a statement that the Sigyn was near a Hungarian tourist boat "when it was involved in an incident" on the river at 9 p.m. local time.
It added that no one aboard the Viking ship was injured, and that it is co-operating with the authorities.
Huge cruise boats have become a common sight on the Danube at Budapest owing to an increase in the popularity of river cruises, but the accident prompted Istvan Tarlos, the mayor of Budapest, to suggest stopping what he called “hotel ships” from mooring in central Budapest owing to increasing levels of river traffic on the Danube.
“We have to look at whether the city centre is a good location for these hotel boats,” he said, adding that having them anchored in popular stretches of the river undermined safety.
“Their ports may have to be moved out [of the centre],” he continued.
Meanwhile the authorities in Budapest said that hopes of finding any survivors were fading fast as rescuers battled a rapid and swirling current on the Danube, and depths of up six metres caused by days of heavy rain.
The search for victims has also been extended along the entire length of the Danube south of Budapest, and the Hungarian press reported that the authorities had asked the Serbian government to look for bodies on Serb stretches of the river.
South Korea said it was sending 27 search-and-rescue personnel, including divers, to Hungary to help in the rescue effort.
But salvaging the wreck of the Mermaid, where many bodies could lie trapped, may take days owing to the fast current and poor visibility.