When a summer holiday turns into tragedy

A Minhang journalist talks about his dramatic experience in Phuket.

When Huang Anbo and his family boarded the tourist boat Libra on the fourth day of their Thai holiday in Phuket on July 5, they weren’t aware of a severe thunderstorm warning for the area and had no idea their lives would be put at risk.

That day, another tourist boat, the Phoenix, capsized in rough seas. Forty-seven Chinese tourists aboard drowned; the remaining 54 people on the boat were rescued. Two other tourist boats in the area that afternoon also overturned in high waves, but all aboard were brought to safety.

Huang, a journalist at Minhang Radio and Television, and his family boarded the Libra for a day’s excursion to Racha Island, a popular site for divers and day-trippers.

“It rained for a little while we were still in Phuket that day, and the dock was under heavy clouds,” said Huang. “But it was sunny on Racha, the tourist guide said, and we would have a day of fun.”

Huang, an avid photographer, took a snapshot of a tourist boat bobbing at sea while it waited for tourists to finish a snorkeling outing. He thought the photo captured a moment of utter peace and happiness. Later, when he read the news reports, he realized it was the Phoenix that he had photographed before tragedy struck.

“A shudder rippled through me as I realized how perilous it was for us out there that day,” said Huang.

As the Libra began its trip back to Phuket at about 4pm, the sky turned black and a storm rolled in, Huang said.

“I felt frightened and asked our tour guide for life jackets for my family,” he said. Among the churning waves, the crew spotted a couple of people in the sea without life jackets. They had apparently fallen out of a motorboat that was now adrift.

A rope was thrown to the pair, who were Russian as it turned out. The woman quickly scrambled on board, but the man refused to go without attaching a tow rope to the motorboat to save it.

 “Our boat turned round and round in strong winds as we tried to save him,” said Huang. “The woman, presumably his wife, was screaming on deck.”

Huang Anbo / Ti Gong

Passengers aboard Libra rescuing a Russian couple whose boat had overturned in rough seas.

One of the diving coaches on the tourist boat jumped into the sea to try to help the man secure the motorboat. Every time they thought they had succeeded, their knots were undone by the strong waves.

The Libra, tossed by huge waves, was listing 20 degrees. More than half of the tourists on board were suffering nausea and vomiting.

“I felt puzzled, and I’m sure the rest of the people on the boat also didn’t understand why saving someone’s motorboat should put us all at risk,” Huang said.

After prolonged effort, the crew of Libra finally managed to save both the two Russians and their boat. But by then, the sea had turned angrier.

“The waves were meters high, and water was leaking into the cabin,” Huang said. “The staff were rushing around, talking urgently into radios and generally spreading panic among us passengers. Even with life jackets, I thought it would take a miracle for us to survive.”

 After 40 minutes of extreme anxiety, the passengers were told the boat was going to dock at a nearby island to weather out the storm.

At 8:30pm, the Libra returned to Phuket, where several ambulances were waiting for the badly shaken tourists.

Huang, looking in hindsight, said he feels lucky to be alive.

“If we hadn’t spent so much time rescuing the Russian couple, odds are we would have been in the same area as the Phoenix when she capsized,” he said.

The Thai government pledged 64 million baht (US$1.9 million) in compensation to victims of the Phuket boat tragedy.

Huang Anbo / Ti Gong

The Libra returns to Phuket safely.

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