Operator of sunken Japanese tour boat had previous accidents

TOKYO (AP) — The head of the company that operated a tourist boat that sank off northern Japan with 26 people aboard said Wednesday he approved the trip despite a broken communication device and forecasts of rough weather, as officials investigated previous accidents involving the company.

The sightseeing boat Kazu 1 with two crew was taking 24 passengers, including two children, on a scenic tour of Shiretoko National Park on the northeastern side of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, when it sent a distress call Saturday afternoon saying it was sinking.

The area, near Kashuni Waterfall, is a difficult place to maneuver because of its rocky coastline and strong tide.

Rescuers on Sunday located 11 bodies, including that of a 3-year-old girl, but have not found the boat. Experts say the missing people may have been trapped inside the vessel.

Seiichi Katsurada, president of the tour boat company, knelt on the floor at a news conference to apologize. “We caused a disastrous accident, and I’m very sorry,” he said.

He said he approved the captain’s plan to proceed with the tour despite predictions of 3-meter (10-foot) waves in the afternoon, because waters at their home port were calm in the morning. He said the tour plan could be changed by the captain if the weather worsened.

“Looking back, it was the wrong decision,” he said.

Katsurada said a wireless device at the company’s office was broken and the boat lacked a satellite phone, making communications between the vessel and the company difficult. But he said he thought the captain could use his cellphone and that staff of other boat operators could help with communications.

However, the boat was alone on Saturday afternoon because local fishermen canceled their operations because of the high wind and wave warnings, while the three other cruise companies hadn't started their season yet.

The Transport Ministry said the boat’s operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruiser, had two accidents last year, including one that involved the captain of the sunken boat, Noriyuki Toyoda. The ministry said it is looking into the company's safety standards and its decision to go ahead with the tour despite the expected rough weather.

The coast guard said it is gathering evidence of suspected professional negligence in the accident.

Witnesses say ownership of the company changed and most of its veteran crewmembers resigned. Katsurada said he took over the company from a relative five years ago and used to have up to a dozen crew, but now has only a few captains and deck crew including Toyoda, who was previously an amphibious vehicle driver and was still new to the tricky Shiretoko coast.

Koya Sugawara, head of Dolphin, another tour boat operator, said the Shiretoko waters require a difficult maneuver by boats as they approach the rocky coastline while avoiding salmon fish nets. He told NHK public television that Katsurada's company often ignored a cooperation agreement among the four local tour companies for safety and operated alone.

An employee of another tour boat company who communicated from his office by radio with the Kazu 1 as it began having trouble described growing panic.

At first, the captain, Toyoda, calmly said his boat was near the waterfall and his return to port would be delayed, the employee told the Asahi newspaper. About 10 minutes later, the captain desperately ordered the other crewmember to "Get everyone to put on a life jacket!”

Toyoda then said the boat was taking on water and might sink and its engine had stalled, and the employee said he made an emergency call to the coast guard to request a rescue.