Colombian officials said the tourist boat Almirante sank in a matter of minutes
Guatape (Colombia) (AFP) - Divers combed the murky depths of a Colombian reservoir Monday for the bodies of a dozen missing passengers from a pleasure boat that sank, killing seven people.
As anxious families waited for news, authorities had yet to explain what caused the four-deck Almirante to go down.
It sank on Sunday afternoon in the El Penol reservoir in the tourist town of Guatape, where Colombian and foreign tourists take leisure cruises.
Divers were searching "inside the boat to determine whether there are people trapped in there," the admiral in charge of the operation, Juan Francisco Herrera, said on Blu Radio.
The death toll climbed to seven with 13 people unaccounted for and 154 confirmed to have survived, the National Disaster Risk Management Unit said.
- Rescue -
Divers were searching as far as 40 meters underwater in "the deepest part of the reservoir," where algae were hampering their progress, said regional government emergency official Margarita Moncada.
Most of those on the Almirante were rescued by other boats or escaped by themselves, officials said.
"I came and picked them up. They were (crowding) like ants, coming and pushing one other," said Yovan Betancur, 28, who rescued 12 people on his boat.
"Lots of people were yelling out to me not to leave them."
Many survivors appeared battered and bleeding and most of them were not wearing life jackets, he said.
- Life jacket shortage? -
On the shore of the reservoir, Viviana Guzman waited for news of her 69-year-old mother Marta Gomez.
The disaster unit chief Marquez later confirmed that Gomez had been found dead.
Speaking to AFP before that announcement, Guzman said her sister and seven-year-old nephew were rescued from the Almirante but her mother's hand slipped out of their grasp.
"This is desperate. I don't know where to turn," she said, her voice broken and face haggard after spending the night searching in hospitals.
She said her sister Angela told her that there had been "very few life jackets" on board the Almirante.
Colombia's Transport Minister Alejandro Maya told AFP the company that ran the boat had its license in order but that there had been various complaints after the accident about the shortage of life jackets.
"Through investigations by the ports and transport authority, we are working to establish what use was made of the life jackets by the crew and passengers," he said.
Separately the public prosecution service said in a statement it would ask for "a report on safety checks... the use of life jackets and the speed limit."
- Holiday weekend -
The reservoir is 68 kilometers (40 miles) from the city of Medellin and is one of Antioquia department's main tourist draws.
Guatape fills with tourists on long weekends. Monday was a public holiday in Colombia.
Visitors come for cruises on the reservoir and to fish and jet-ski.
Another boatman, Carlos Campuzano, 44, said he was the first to sail to the passengers' rescue. He estimates he made three journeys and saved some 30 people.
His boat filled with tourists swarming off the Almirante and served as a bridge for others who crossed his craft and jumped into other boats that had arrived.
"People were in shock. It was chaos," he said.
"We were getting people on board and they were calling their families and friends on, so what could I do? I had to take them."
Authorities in Guatape declared three days of mourning.
"The people of Guatape today want to tell all those families who have lost a loved one that we all share their pain," said local woman Marleny Rios, 48.